In an excellent article in the Guardian on 29th of March Karen McVeigh talked about the damage to people’s lives in Syria from the fall out of British Foreign Aid cuts from 0.7% To 0.5% GDP.
In very practical terms this was illustrated by a cut of £4m to a charity that supports Syrians getting access to legal protection in the form of papers to prove who they are . This will immediately impact the lives of 65,000 people; children, students, and displaced people who have lost; housing, land and property rights . People who cannot identify themselves thrust into a zombie like status of being neither one thing nor the other stripped of rights because they are stripped of the basic essentials of citizenship. Here is the rub, this legal focus is work that the UK Aid community is synonymous with. Where we were class leading global experts for which we were internationally respected, part of “Brand UIK” -slashed in a keystroke .
Many will be forced now to spend more time in refugee camps; places that are over run with COVID and have limited or zero education facilities .
But that is over there and they are distant and different from us so why should we care? Ignore humanitarian reasons , think of it in purely selfish terms, these refugee camps are a breeding ground for discontent and discontent is the nutrient that feeds and grows fundamentalism . Today’s issues “over there “ are tomorrow’s headlines over here . Perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects of the pandemic is that terrorists can’t travel.
UK Government speaks of people returning to Syria and leading productive lives integrating back into their society and helping to grow their economies so that we can trade productively with them yet in practical terms we have cut the rug from under them and pushed them into total destitution .
These are the conflicting values of our UK Government .
Doubt that ? In the same report Care International said that they have lost 36% of its funding in Syria alone. The UK is the 3rd biggest donor for Syria so what we do matters. With 90% of its population in abject poverty the average Syrian has cut one meal a day from their diet this year .
This is a single country perspective but it will be repeated across the countries that are or perhaps more appropriately , were , supported by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. It is suggested that the budget may be cut by 65% this year.
Is this a nuanced redefinition of Aid or is it a callous and cynical imposition of Conservative political values ?
A number of agencies formerly supported by the FCDO’s predecessor DFID have it is alleged been told that criticism of cuts to their support might affect future funding decisions . In effect a gagging order to stifle public criticism and to reduce public awareness of the decisions that have been made, as ever with this Government without consultation and by a small select group of like thinkers .
One charity commented that the quality of communication has changed significantly since the move from DFID to FCDO. That is something I can confirm from personal experience . As Chair of a Development Charity, I have written 3 times to them and I am still awaiting the courtesy of a reply . I wasn’t even asking for money!
The Government will use the excuse of the pandemic to justify its action here, we will see lot of justification balanced on that in the coming weeks and months . It is the bread and butter of distraction based political communication . But here is the reality, the Aid budget is 0.7 of a percent of our GDP , it is a miniscule fraction of what has been spent on the pandemic . Indeed it is less than has been spent on pandemic measures that either have not been delivered or have not worked .Yet the Government is happy to increase the budget on nuclear weapons .
Nuclear weapons ( should you believe in them ) are supposed to be a deterrent against attack by another nation state which has access to weapons of mass destruction .It is no deterrent to asymmetric warfare and terrorism , especially when the threat is home grown . “ Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough” the phrase that John Betjeman used in his poem was not intended to be taken literally .
What we were world leaders in was “soft power the kind that was delivered by Aid programmes. The kind that removes the fertile ground of discontent.
What these decisions are doing is nothing whatsoever to do with saving money that can be spent at home, if we have understood nothing else about financial policy in the last year then we should by now understand that this is about priorities not the amount of money available . No it is about a political stand point that the Government did not consult upon and for which they have no mandate . It is a very strange world that we have been thrust into where I find myself agreeing with; Theresa May, David Cameron and Tony Blair who have made the exact same criticism .
So I’ll finish with questions. Do these decisions reflect Scottish values ? Is the impact something you can be proud of ? Over the coming weeks do you have other choices to hand ?
The UK is as responsible as any other invader for the state Syria finds itself today. I will never, ever, forget the spectacle of MPs cheering when the decision was taken to start bombing Syria. And, with the benefit of hindsight, what good has it done?