War crime victims let down by the bloated aid system

Published by The Times (9th January, 2020)

The issue was clear, the intentions noble, the promises bold. The coming together in common cause of politicians, charities and celebrities attracted global attention. But five years after William Hague, then foreign secretary, talked of ending ‘one of the greatest injustices of our time’ by banishing rape from battlefields, his heartfelt initiative has come to serve as another indictment of British aid policies.

It began with a conference, hosted by the unlikely pairing of Hague and the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie. The aid industry loves a nice conference and this one was big. It cost taxpayers £5.2 million amid austerity. Feeding 1,700 delegates from 123 nations cost about £300,000, while £576,000 was spent on taxis, flights and hotel beds.

But who could quibble over costly canapés when the prize was so huge: to end the horrors and tackle the trauma of sexual violence in conflict zones? Sadly, a report from the aid watchdog has revealed a more prosaic reality. Behind the impressive speeches and impassioned slogans lies a textbook case of much that has gone wrong with our bloated £14.6 billion aid programme.

Friction and duplication between government departments. No strategic vision, no plan and minimal evidence behind a subsequent £34 million initiative. The views of victims swept aside, going against best practice and stated goals, while increasing ‘the risk that programming inadvertently causes harm’. Yet a team of consultants was hired and there was ‘heated debate over terminology’.

Whitehall rules forced those running projects to spend cash fast ‘with disregard for the quality of programmes’ — such a tawdry feature of parliament’s determination to meet the daft UN aid spending target. Interest waned and budgets plunged after Hague left the Foreign Office, another familiar story in a sector so reliant on the whims of fashion and dictates of politicians.

It is pitiful stuff but perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, the Foreign Office is so myopic that it blows aid on North Korean officials and China’s security. The initiative involved the UN, whose peacekeepers have a grotesque record of rape, and charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children whose determination to protect their brands led them into covering up staff sexual abuse.

This time the sums are comparatively small as the aid caravan moves on. Yet once again we see the corrosive impact of policy when driven by starstruck politicians, posturing celebrities and grasping charities. Whether through shameful selfishness or simply shocking naivety, they have exploited the despair of desperate people.

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