There are several motivations why, as a country, we might want to invest in overseas development, let me rehearse some of them.
Perhaps it is a purely altruistic motive. We see poverty; health and gender inequality, hunger, and our basic human compassion is drawn to help our fellow human beings.
Considering our economy flourished at a time of slavery and colonialism, some of the key institutions in our country were founded by money from those sources. We could look at the heritage of colonialism, fractured continents with boundaries established in Europe to suit European; needs, economies, business and jingoistic geo-political competition . We might feel an urge to assist, possibly through a positive commitment to be a part of the solution to issues , in our past, we were instrumental in causing.
We could also look at Africa and see a doubling of the population there, explainable, not because they are uniquely irresponsible in their development path but because it so closely follows the same path European countries took in the 19th and 20th Centuries. If this is the next huge market after China and India we could conclude that there is enlightened self interest in a safe, secure and viable development of that market .
All of those are legitimate. You might feel swayed to one or the other depending upon your background, experience, priorities and sentiments, or you might feel that all of them, in fact, are persuasive .
To suggest however that we are excused from the debate because the overwhelming evidence of injustice caused, relates to a Country of which Scotland is just one part, both denies our unique potential to contribute in this area and of course, history .
Scotland’s entrepreneurs and Empire administrators were enthusiastic partners in the colonial experiment and we have the evidence in our street names monuments and institutions to prove it. But equally Scotland’s international development sector, its research institutions and academia are significantly engaged with initiatives that are world leading, innovative and embrace their partners in countries that are more vulnerable to social environmental and economic threats.
Taking its roots in the ODM inspired initiative of the 1964 – 1970 Labour Government, the Department for International Development ( DFID) was established in 1997. DFID’s remit was “to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty”.As such it was an enthusiastic engager with similar initiatives around the world and promoting GDP based financial support.
I would never make the claim that DFID was perfect and I will be up front and say that my own organisation received funding from it, but I can offer an honest opinion that in my time working with them they punched considerably above their weight. DFID’s opinion was sought by players with considerably more cash in their pockets than the British Government and rightly so. The values they worked to and their ethical approach was something that meant they were often at the top table, more often than not, at the head of it.
DFID is a function of Government so it would be naive to suggest that it didn’t reflect political interests but it was able to stand astride the interests of our country and those that benefited from our funding, if not uniquely, then certainly with respect.
I can recall a dinner in 2011 with one of the highest ranking Diplomats in the African Union. Discussing the difference between the Foreign Office’s approach and DFID’s, a committed Anglophile, he smiled wryly. He spoke of the post colonial delusion of British exceptionalism that was believed, possibly exclusively, by the British and which he saw as holding us back as a nation from being truly exceptional. DFID on the other hand he saw as a real British achievement, something however flawed it might be, still very special, much trusted and a gift, from our nation, to the World.
Now it is to go, to be subsumed into what the Prime Minister calls a super department potentially responsible for around 80 percent of UK aid spending. The rational being the UK is seeking to forge a place on the international stage independent from the EU, including its development cooperation programmes.
Speaking from personal experience , ironically, many people we sought to influence saw DFID’s programmes as more effective than those of Europe.
But why does this matter ?
First of all not all of the richest nations do commit to spending a fixed proportion of their GDP to international development but of those that do, COVID19 will affect the value of that investment.
It is logical. If your GDP shrinks by 10% and you have a fixed percentage promise to fulfil then the cash value of that goes down by 10%. So at a time when poor countries are being hit by the unexpected burden of coronavirus they will see Aid support significantly cut. In these circumstances how and what Britain spends on international development, is of vital importance.
The irony of course is that the Virus was probably exported to them from China, USA and Europe. Follow the transport hubs and you will see what I mean .
Then there is intent .
DFID’s intent is clear, it is in what they stand for, “sustainability …eliminate world poverty .”
The Prime Minister made this comment in announcing that FCO And DFID would merge:
“This is exactly the moment when we must mobilise every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas.”
No one who scorns right wing “ America First “ rhetoric of an increasingly deluded and isolated President of the USA can stand up and defend the “Britain First “ rhetoric of our PM. They are the same, and I am happy to defend that statement. Bring it on. If there is logic, let it be seen and debated.
There have been attacks on DFID for years from right wing media usually misrepresenting initiatives that are seen outside of the UK as class leading innovators and extraordinary value for money. Now they are getting something that they have advocated for long and hard -“putting British interests first”. The PM referred to aid through DFID as a “cashpoint in the sky” without quoting one iota of evidence .
Some will say the media have a point, but it depends on what you mean and does it work?
One of the suggestions is that we will move some of our funding away from traditional partners in Africa and towards Eastern European countries. Why fund Zambia and Tanzania when Ukraine and West Balkans are of more strategic value ? What strategic value ? Economic, political security? We aren’t given to know other than it will be in the hands of Domnic Raab to decide. Comforting?
The logical vacuum of this notion is pretty self evident. Did I mention that Africa will see a doubling of its market size in the next 50 years ? Who has primacy in offering aid to Eastern Europe ? Other than military aid from the USA , it is the EU, and we cant compete with their investment levels or for that matter the traditional sentiment between their governments and Brussels. Odd this, but they all seem to want to join the EU? I wonder which way they will lean ?
Hardly surprising really given that Britain’s approach has been to look elsewhere and stress the “ Special Relationship.” What people ask of someone coming late to the party is “ what size bottle did you bring?” Ours spread around Eastern Europe isn’t likely to fill too many glasses.
What benefits can we expect ?
Do we make things that Eastern European nations will want to buy over the offerings of our counterparts in China, Germany France?
What is the estimated return on the decision to dispose of our good will in a fast developing area of the world where we have influenced for decades in favour of one which has much more persuasive partners closer to hand ? As Americans might say – “who has done the Math ?”
I am not against investment in Eastern Europe but for the right motivation.
Doubtless, beyond the self interest defence, we will see comments like “ ah but it is going to be spent the same way , really.” Shall we fact check that ? Two areas to compare, poverty and gender inequality .
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office spends 22% of its budget on the countries that are assessed as being low income and least developed, DFID spends 61%.
DFID’s leading work on gender inequality is widely praised as being amongst the most impactful in dealing with poverty. The cost to return is extraordinary . They have spent over the last few years between 48% and 59% of their budget in this area. In 2016 – 2018 FCO aid averaged 1% in this area and it went up to nearly a quarter in 2019.
I can’t imagine how the dedicated Civil Servants and development professionals in East Kilbride feel about this. Thankfully I don’t have to, their Union the FDA said this:-
“Staff have a fear for initial security in the usual way, but beyond that, there’s a fear that their new work will be quite different from what they’re doing now. They have a strong professional commitment to poverty reduction, and that’s why they’re in the department; they have decades’ worth of experience in that field. There’s a real concern any work they’re deployed to now will be very different.”
We do however have an insight from Canada and Australia on how things went for them when they made the same change . Badly .
I watched with astonishment as the Canadian Aid Agency lost all position and respect having vied with DFID as thought leaders. Seven years on Australia still notes that it is a work in progress melding very different cultures and motivation .
Someone said to me once “ Why you want to wake up in the morning plays a very significant part in how productive you are during the day .”
What I can add from a personal perspective is that I could not have done my job if it had been funded by the FCO in a British interests first perspective. We used private and public monies to create development partnerships in a particular sector. I was allowed into the offices of Ministers, Board rooms of companies and had access to top African Union diplomats because the credentials I brought with me were backed by an understanding of DFID and the other donors as honest brokers. To add the new emphasis to this equation is to erect a barrier to trust . The doors would have remained shut.
For Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and David Cameron to come to a point of agreement against your position takes talent. Mr Johnson has achieved this but I would want to make another point .
I started this article examining three possible motivations for investment in international development. Creatively, this new approach manages to offer failure in all three . It certainly isn’t altruistic, it doesn’t deal with our legacy and it has no logic for self interest.
Typically in writing here I offer a balanced view, forgive me if I depart from that now.
Devoid of political scrutiny this is an act of; unthought out, politically motivated, vandalism .