British aid and the defence of internationalism

By Pablo Yanguas, Honorary Research Fellow, Global Development Institute, The University of Manchester. Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of LCID. LCID is a strong supporter of the 0.7% aid target and our views on the future of the UK aid budget can be read here.

Britain’s aid system is full of paradoxes. It benefits from a decades-long consensus amongst elites about the intrinsic and instrumental value of aid; it has been afforded billions of pounds to tackle some of the world’s thorniest problems; and it is led by the OECD’s premier bilateral agency, a ministry that often defines the transnational development agenda by combining expertise, accountability, and vision. None of this can be said of any other donor, bilateral or multilateral. And yet DFID’s ecosystem is tragically misunderstood or neglected by the British public; it faces recurrent attacks from tabloid hacks less interested in development than in scoring cheap rhetorical victories; and it is subject to a level of scrutiny and control that can easily stifle creativity and risk-taking.

DFID and the broader UK Aid system are something to be proud of. They are worth fighting for. But the fight to keep Britain’s leadership hangs on the edge of a knife as the aid community faces two existential challenges going forward – one technical, the other political.

In technical terms, the world of aid is getting smaller, and harder. After the uncertain decades of the late 20th century, developing countries have decidedly entered a new phase in their economic, social, human, and political development. Absolute poverty is on the decline, average incomes are rising, private sectors are flourishing, and a new middle class is beginning to feel a deeper sense of ownership over their countries’ destinies. Governments can now find in financial markets the credit that was long denied them. When loans are too costly, grants and other transfers from rising Southern power are matching – and, in some cases, surpassing – traditional ODA flows coming from bilateral donors or international financial institutions.

All of these trends are a net positive for the world, but they do not reach everywhere. There remain still plenty of countries that are too remote, destitute or unsafe for markets to take an interest. Where that neglect overlaps with a lack of geopolitical relevance one finds the intractable places of the world: Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, or Afghanistan. But more stable and prosperous low- and middle-income countries also face challenges that cannot be met with financial transfers alone. Intractable problems like corruption, market regulation, and public service reform call for savvy technical assistance and coalition-building efforts. These are contentious issues where reform may take decades to come to fruition, due to vested interests or deeply-rooted social norms.

Luckily, a host of committed and creative actors within the aid community – and increasingly the broader development community – have spent the better part of two decades breaking down these challenges, taking an honest look at business as usual, and developing new concepts, frameworks, and modalities for making aid impactful in intractable places or intractable problems. It is a nascent agenda, an inchoate insurgency that cuts across bilateral agencies like DFID and USAID but also think tanks, charities, and private providers. There is no shortage of good ideas, or people willing to test them. What this community lacks, crucially, is political coverage.

It is unclear whether the foreign aid system as we know it can survive in a time of populism. Identity populism has legitimized the moral discrimination between nationals and foreigners, undermining the fundamental humanitarianism that led to the establishment and expansion of the aid system. Economic populism, in turn, has undermined the fundamental internationalism that underpinned the liberal, rules-based world order that emerged from the ashes of World War II. Humane internationalism was for decades the underlying moral vision of foreign aid, in Britain as in other OECD countries. However, the current crisis of public confidence in aid is but a sideshow in a much larger struggle between internationalism and populism.

There is little that the aid community can do by itself to stem the tide of morally and intellectually suspect yet emotionally persuasive populist claims. DFID has defaulted to a reactive modus operandi in which Daily Mail scandals are met with meek press releases. The charity world has internalised a siege mentality that responds to criticism with an impossible commitment to the highest ethical standard, while still peddling the kind of poverty porn that breeds popular resentment and plants the seed of populist backlash. The firms that implement DFID projects around the world are terrified of headlines and reputational costs in a world where accountability is often understood in a strictly contractual sense. And academia has grown increasingly distant from the realities of aid practice, gladly taking ODA funds without bothering to understand the very hand that feeds them. Only ICAI dares to question some of the worst excesses of the aid counterbureaucracy, despite having been set itself to keep an eye on the aid system.

An isolated aid community pins all its hopes on the promise of enlightened leadership. Practitioners yearn for a minister who truly believes in aid, instead of someone for whom a DFID appointment is merely a stepping stone towards better, more important things. They look to Parliament for understanding, succour, and protection. But their insularity has propelled them into a downward spiral, retreating to the safe and comforting camp of Guardian readers, instead of reaching out to fellow internationalists in business, religious congregations, or the free-trade wing of the Conservative movement. It is, by all appearances, a self-defeating strategy. But it is what short-term incentives allow.

Seen in this light, the aid system poses a much larger and more fundamental question for Labour (and the other parties): will our leaders fight to protect and expand the kind of humane internationalism that advances peace, prosperity, equity, and dignity for all? Or will they bow down to our worst instincts, let Britain sleepwalk into a new era of populism, and thereby jeopardise one of the world’s best aid systems?

Posted in: Aid

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