British aid retreats from idealism into the cynical realism of the national interest

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By Nick Young

Posted  Monday, November 8   2010 at  12:15

Why, at the same time as slashing £81 billion off public spending by cutting welfare allowances and shedding half a million jobs, has Britain’s Conservative-Liberal government pledged to keep increasing aid abroad?

By 2015, Britain’s aid budget will rise to £9 billion. Staunchly pro-Conservative UK newspapers are hotly protesting that “charity begins at home.” Many Britons agree.

There is indeed something curious about a government that regards welfare support at home as bad for growth (by distorting market incentives) yet resists much the same arguments abroad — as put by aid critics like Dambisa Moyo of Zambia, Franklin Cudjoe of Ghana and Uganda’s Andrew Mwenda.

What is the underlying logic?

A clue lies in a new Defence and Security Review that proposes doubling the £1.9 billion of British aid spent in “fragile and conflicted states.”

This suggests determination to harness future aid more closely to Britain’s perceived geopolitical and security interests. The extra funds for “conflicted states” exactly match the projected aid increase.

“Mission drift” from the poverty reduction objectives of the UK’s 2002 International Development Act is not new.

A year after enacting that law, the then Labour government devoted a considerable chunk of Department for International Development funds to post-war reconstruction in Iraq.

As a result, DfID had to trim budgets originally intended for China. (Why China, whose economy was already booming?

Because tens of millions of Chinese remained poor, China was regarded as making effective use of aid, and Britain, like the rest of the West, wanted to influence the sort of place that China would become.)

Now Afghanistan heads a list of “conflicted states” that also includes Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
In bolstering “state building” efforts in these countries, Britain is following the lead of the United States.

US military strategists stress “winning hearts and minds” by delivering development at the same time as killing insurgents.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called, in January, for development to become “a central pillar of all that we do in foreign policy” and has launched a Defence and Diplomacy Review that will reiterate this theme when it is published next month.

There is, for sure, plenty of poverty in war zones, enabling British Prime Minister David Cameron to argue, “We’re mad if we don’t put money into mending broken states where so many of the problems of poverty come from.”

Yet the mending efforts have so far produced the two most corrupt states on the planet, according to Transparency International: Somalia at number one, Afghanistan at number two, and Iraq just behind at number four.

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