Time to ditch white saviour complex

Published by The i paper (23rd November, 2020)

The Government’s debt, inflamed by frantic efforts to fight the impact of the pandemic, has soared to unprecedented peacetime levels. As spending surges and revenues crash, it has broken the £2trn barrier to become bigger than the annual size of Britain’s economy for the first time in my lifetime of nearly six decades. Even with low interest rates, these are eye-watering sums to borrow that store up pain for the future. Yet mere hints that the Chancellor Rishi Sunak might reduce aid donations in this week’s spending review have sparked apoplexy. The hysteria is mounting, the hyperbole is flowing – and the stench of hypocrisy has already become sickening.

Tony Blair, who helped unleash carnage in the Middle East that wrecked the lives of millions before cuddling up as an adviser to some of the world’s cruellest dictators, labelled the idea “a profound strategic mistake”. David Cameron, the prime minister who bequeathed Brexit and Boris Johnson to his country while destroying his own career, claimed it was a “political mistake” that would be “signalling retreat” from our global leadership. Oxfam, tarnished by sexual abuse by its staff that exploited suffering women in disaster zones, said it would “do huge harm to the world’s most vulnerable people”. Save the Children, a charity with at least 80 staff on its London books collecting pay packages of more than £100,000, pontificated about poverty reduction.

Let us hope Sunak ignores such self-interested parties and presses on with his plan to reduce the foreign aid spending target from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of gross national income. There will be screaming from a tainted poverty industry that has become so bloated at taxpayers’ expense, of course, along with grandstanding from a few backbenchers who think this policy makes them look compassionate rather than simply callow. Meanwhile the Chancellor’s case is not helped by hideous cronyism exposed in the panicked procurement of medical protective gear earlier this year, let alone the Prime Minister’s bung of billions to the defence sector.

Yet how much better if Sunak, instead of proposing a temporary cut to divert state spending amid pandemic, told the truth: that the aid target is a stupid, misconceived and outdated idea, which smacks of arrogant neo-colonialism and does more harm than good in poorer parts of the planet. For years ministers have been striving to find better ways to spend the cash that still meet guidelines for official development assistance, examining green energy projects to provide jobs in Britain or building a naval vessel that could be used also for humanitarian disasters. Far better to heed Sir Winston Churchill’s advice to never waste a crisis by taking this opportunity to face down the vested interests and ditch this daft, destructive and unpopular target.

Bear in mind the hallowed target – ignored by other major global economies such as the United States and France – is not based on need. It was proposed by some campaigners in the 1960s based on data going back two decades. Shortly after the turn of this century, experts at a development think-tank applied the same figures to their contemporary economy; it gave them a new target of 0.01 per cent of rich countries’ income. 

Since then, the global economy has swollen further and poverty declined at the fastest rate in history before the pandemic due to capitalism, consumerism and amazing scientific advances. But Britain’s handouts kept growing to an astonishing £15.2bn last year – more than was spent on long-term social care at home. A consensus at Westminster coalesced around the policy in a deluded belief that it made a despised political elite look caring and cuddly. Instead it underlines how out of touch they are with the realities of development, the distorting impact of flawed targets and the disgruntled mood of voters who fail to see why we spent their cash on African despots, Chinese judges and North Korean officials while cutting police, care and legal aid funding at home. 

These MPs, their blinkered views shaped by trips hosted by charities and consultants benefiting from their largesse, think they know more about poverty relief than someone such as the economist Angus Deaton, who earned a Nobel Prize for his lifetime’s work studying the issues and warns that Western handouts can corrupt poor governments and stymie growth. As Deaton once told me, we should not run policies “to keep an aid industry going and let them have moral superiority over the rest of us”. Yet those torrents of cash – which doubled under a decade of Tory prime ministers – have not just propped up repulsive regimes and boosted the bank accounts of rich people in poor nations but corrupted an entire sector. 

This is why famous charities covered up abuse to protect their brands, why fat-cat private consultants tried to deceive a parliamentary inquiry, why fake orphanages filled with trafficked children boom around the world, why civil servants doling out aid in the Department for International Development paid themselves more than any others in Whitehall before its abolition. Meanwhile, unglamorous causes such as older or disabled people get trodden into the dust.

Now we hear the inevitable plea for more aid in wake of the pandemic. Just listen to the likes of David Miliband, who pocketed more than $1m (£750,000) last year at a charity heavily backed by British cash. Yet the Netherlands has shown this self-aggrandising sector can be faced down to ditch the aid target. The country did so in the wake of the global financial crisis, and officials told me it allowed them to focus spending more effectively, and caused less of a stir than anticipated.

If politicians really want to assist global development they should tackle tax dodging to stem flows of dirty money,  legalise drugs to weaken crime gangs, loosen borders for trade and people, end the sale of weapons to despotic regimes, perhaps even stop promoting disastrous lockdowns for poor nations with young populations. One thing is certain: slashing billions from the aid budget will have little impact on poverty – although it will upset fat-cat charity chiefs, former prime ministers and a few Swiss bankers.

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