Most of the Conservative 2017 manifesto read like a sloppily constructed plot point in a tale of hubris. All platitudes, jingoism and bear traps, it was it was like the document you produce when you think you can’t lose, just before you do. Yet on the matter of international aid, it was precise: we were to maintain the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid, a target finally reached in 2013, and enshrined in law two years later. But we would, in the Conservative plan, “work with like-minded countries to change the rules”. And if that didn’t work, we would “change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending”.
In the context of the aid debate – which has been coarsened right down to: should we spend any money on foreigners, when we have problems of our own? – this seemed pretty innocuous. Money is money: what does it care about definitions? It has its own physical laws, and when you spend it, people benefit. More delicate questions of narrative and framing matter even less. So what if we stop talking about “aid” and start talking about “investment”? Doesn’t that just forge a more equal relationship between source nation and recipient? Why not talk about mutual benefit, about how our aid to others makes our own nation safer and more prosperous? If the secretary of state for international development, Priti Patel, has made it explicit that she wants to use the aid budget to “tear down the barriers to free trade”, isn’t that better than such an aim being implicit?
The onerous definition they seek to overturn is hardly stringent: to count as aid, money has to be spent on poverty amelioration in another country. If that’s too strict for the new, “global” Britons, where exactly do they think that money should go instead?
The clues are dropped like breadcrumbs through the pre-2010 statements of David Cameron, the financial choices of the Department for International Development (DfID) and its network of private contractors, and the neo-imperialist rhetoric of the Brexiters, where international standing is based on dominance, and other countries are interesting only insofar as they represent a market or descend into the kind of violence that generates refugees.
In the Conservative vision, our profit and security are paramount, our interventions beneficial by definition – as per Cameron’s risible potted history, in a pre-prime ministerial green paper: “Capitalism and development was Britain’s gift to the world. Today we have an opportunity to renew that gift by helping poor countries kickstart growth and development.” Our version of “kickstarting growth” is sometimes – as detailed in a biting report, by the campaign group Global Justice – about as much of a “gift” from us as our sale of opium to the Chinese.
But even when you hive off the most egregious examples of privatisation masquerading as aid, even when you conceive of investment only as it works in theory, deals working for everyone and lifting the wealth of all, this is still a monumental perversion of the concept of a development goal.
States do invest in the infrastructure of other states: the Chinese in our nuclear industry, for instance, the French in our energy, the Germans in our railways. It is perceived, on the right, as an inevitable and generative consequence of globalisation, and on the left as a crying shame that the principle of nationalisation still holds, only our own nation gets none of the benefit. What neither side would claim was that the investment was undertaken as a favour to us, to “lift us out of poverty”.
Yet when we invest in private African agribusiness – DfID spent £600m on this scheme – we do so under the guise of “raising 50 million people out of poverty by 2022”. In fact, it was a for-profit venture that did nothing of the sort: the UN rapporteur for right to food, Olivier de Schutter, found that it had exacerbated land insecurity among smallholders and accelerated seed privatisation. The UK aid watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, had a slightly kinder reading, that it was “little more than a means of promotion for the companies involved and a chance to increase their influence in policy debates”. This is, through any lens, investment in the privatisation of another nation’s infrastructure.
You can defend or promote it on the same economic grounds as the Chinese might defend their interest in Hinkley Point, but to dress it up as benevolence is critically damaging to the good faith of the British internationalist project. In rhetorical and logical terms, it returns us to the age of justifying a colonial land grab on the grounds that we were arriving with the “gift of capitalism and development”.
What is more modern is the spectre of UK consultancy profiteering. “Clearly,” said Aisha Dodwell, one of the authors of the Global Justice report, “you can’t have aid consultants earning a quarter of a million a year as part of a poverty reduction strategy.” It has the simple ring of an exaggeration, but isn’t one: Adam Smith International (ASI), a London-based firm specialising in giving advice to governments on economic reform, has won £450m worth of contracts from DfID since 2011 – £90m in 2014 alone, which was more than DfID’s combined spend on human rights and women’s equality organisations, and nearly twice what was spent on programmes tackling HIV.
The dazzling success here has been of argument, lines repeated so often that they have taken on the status of truth even while they are its opposite. “Aid” has become a byword for the disempowering handout; money given directly to grassroots organisations is a patronising pebble dropped into a bottomless well. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything more empowering than to build a civic network of communities solving their own problems, or anything less empowering than a consultant arriving to give your government a “business advocacy capacity development programme” (one of ASI’s projects in Zimbabwe).
It is possible to do a huge amount of good with 0.7% of the UK’s GDP, but only if there is a driving moral purpose. Shorn of intent, reduced to at best “mutual benefit”, at worst the creation of free markets, it expressly hinders the amelioration of poverty in other countries. And it pollutes our internationalism, refashions us in the image of the rapacious double-talkers who populated the ignoblest moments of our history. It is a lesser remarked element of the post-Brexit terrain that we now talk about colonialism as a mixed bag rather than exploitation. Yet the self-belief driving so much of the arrogance and delusion stem from this revisionism.