What's humanitarian about this aid?

The US has imposed on Russia an aid package that will leave the country poorer but American farmers

Here we are at the end of 1998. More than ten years has passed since Russia began experimenting with economic and political reform. During those ten years, we have had much experience of this reform and can now state with some certainty that there are at least three things Russia does not need. First, more loans to add to those that already cannot be paid back. Second, more financial resources placed in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats. Third, more economic measures that will harm any of the already fragile Russian domestic manufacturing industries.

What is the west doing to help Russia at the end of 1998? You don't need three guesses to work out that it is engaging in the one form of "aid" activity guaranteed to achieve all three of these negative goals: selling large quantities of cheap food to Russia. This is what is generally called "humanitarian aid". It is a farce.

Which is not to say that there aren't hungry people in Russia, or that hungry people shouldn't be helped. Even in Moscow, the richest city in the country, the metro stations are now tightly encircled by old ladies holding up single packs of cigarettes and bits of dried fish, the sale of which will finance the potato they will eat for supper. Even in Moscow everyone has a story: a cousin in Siberia, perhaps a PhD in physics, who hasn't received his salary for a year, or a friend whose child reports that schoolmates pass out in class through lack of food. The newspapers are full of such stories, too, and, although Russians generally seem to find ways to survive without starving, one doesn't have to look hard to see poverty that is far worse than in recent years.

There are good ways to help people and bad ways. There are also terrible ways, and the west, most notably the United States, appears to have chosen the most terrible way of all. At least the European Union has the decency to give its $500 million worth of surplus subsidised food to Russia for free. The United States, on the other hand, has graciously offered to lend the Russian government money to buy its $600 million worth of surplus subsidised food - thereby adding to the Russian government's vast and unrepayable debts.

More to the point, everything is being done to ensure that the money will not go directly to the people who need it. If the words "humanitarian aid" conjure up a heart-warming image of a little man in a shiny lorry giving out hot cross buns to beggars, forget it. According to the current plan, the aid will be distributed by private companies, which in Russia means fat, sluggish, semi-private companies stuffed with former Agriculture Ministry bureaucrats. Inevitably these companies have close links to the politicians who selected them to carry out said aid distribution.

At least one of these companies, Roskhleboprodukt, has done this sort of thing before: it distributed grain three times in 1991 and 1992. That is, it took the grain, sold the grain, accepted money for the grain and somehow appeared not to notice when large quantities of grain and money disappeared in the process. The president of Roskhleboprodukt has admitted that the last time around, food distribution wasn't entirely above board although, naturally, he denied that his company was involved.

Yet it isn't as if the aid is intended to help the Russian domestic food industry either. When a few semi-private companies sell free food below cost, what happens to Russian food producers in the meantime? Well, first they have trouble competing; then they go out of business. Cheap chicken legs from America mean that producers of Russian pork might as well go home. Ditto cheap wheat, rye, rice, beef, whatever.

Although there are conflicting reports about how good the Russian grain harvest was this past year, the view of the Russian grain market in the future is fairly uniform: the flood of foreign food will create a surplus, and that surplus can only, in the end, hurt domestic producers.

Unless, of course, those domestic producers simply start selling their products abroad, which they almost certainly will. Already Russia has exported 1.5 million tonnes of wheat this year, according to the Institute for Agrarian Market Research here. Hundreds of thousands more tonnes go abroad every month, and nobody has any intention of stopping them. True, Russia has agreed not to re-export American aid, but even if it keeps to this promise, which seems unlikely, Gennady Kulik, the deputy prime minister, whose pet project this is, insisted last week that "no, we are not going to stop exporting". And that is that.

Yes, Kulik is a cynic. But he does deserve some credit: he is not as cynical as the American secretary of agriculture who has openly described the aid deal as "good news for America's farmers and ranchers". He is right: if anyone other than the employees of Roskhleboprodukt stands to gain from this exercise, it is they.

And if anyone loses, it will be the Russians, and not only the hungry Russians. When, once again, a western effort to "help" Russia collapses into chaos and corruption, the appetite for doing something - anything - on Russia's behalf will sink further.

Yet it is not as if there aren't intelligent ways to spend aid money here: with $100 carefully invested, one could probably do a lot more than with $100 million handed over to Roskhleboprodukt. There are provincial reformers who need support, local charities to advise, schools to help with western books and funding. There is a whole generation to educate, a generation that is genuinely interested in, and open to, western ideas and culture. If that sounds like too big a job, other problems could be addressed. Russia is facing shortages of insulin, for example, without which diabetics die; and the newspapers are full of stories about tuberculosis, especially in prisons but among the poor as well.

A few foundations and the odd charity have worked out that there are ways to spend money intelligently. But, to date, almost no one in the official "help Russia" business has been interested in spending money intelligently. They have been interested in other things: shoring up Boris Yeltsin, or making the Russian money markets safe for American banks, or helping American and European farmers. No wonder our aid efforts have failed in the past, and no wonder they will fail again.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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