A leaked memo in the United Kingdom has caused a minor controversy by alleging that the UK’s development aid should be disbursed according to what’s best for their national security. “The national security council has said the ODA [Overseas Development Administration] budget should make the maximum possible contribution to national security consistent with ODA rules,” said an internal memo from the Department for International Development (DFID), the body responsible for managing the UK’s very significant aid budget. Surprise, surprise – aid is used as a tool for foreign policy. Here, laid bare, is the fundamental problem with development assistance; it is rarely without ulterior motives, and that’s why development aid is never going to lead to meaningful development.
This also explains something that has been puzzling me for some time. When David Cameron’s Conservative coalition assumed power, they announced strenuous spending cuts across the board, but ‘ring-fenced’ (i.e. protected) the development assistance budget. This is to keep Britain in line with their pledge to contribute 0.7% of their budget to aid; a pledge on which other countries have reneged quite happily. A laudable decision, but it seemed strange – development aid is usually the first thing to disappear from strained national budgets (particularly strange when the incoming government also ‘ring-fenced’ spending on an absurd, already obsolete nuclear system called Trident, costing over 20 billion pounds). Was it to please their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats? Perhaps. But it’s now apparent that protecting the development budget was just a little bit of creative accounting, and that money is actually being used as a supplement to British defence policy (particularly to support the war in Afghanistan).
So what are the ramifications of this? It seems likely that this signals an end, or the beginning of the end, to DFID’s heady period as de facto British representation in countries where they disbursed aid, particularly in Africa; DFID in Kenya, for example, is said to employ significantly more people than does the embassy, and the local head of DFID to enjoy a lot more power than the ambassador [I’m unable to independently verify these claims, but I’ve heard them from multiple sources]. For countries that are recipients of British aid, they are effectively put on alert – toe the line, or else; a return to aid conditionality in all its glory. It also seems likely that much more aid money will be diverted to where Britain has a military presence, i.e. Afghanistan; so while the government can say that “aid is not being cut”, the reality is that aid will be cut from countries that need it, and more of it pumped into Afghanistan to desperately prop up the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai which Britain helped to establish, and to sustain.
Ultimately, the leaked memo has told us nothing we don’t know already – the aid budget will be used as a tool for British interests, albeit much more directly than did the previous government; the interests of those who need the aid (and whom the aid is meant to be ‘ring-fenced’ for) will not be taken into account. And people wonder why development aid doesn’t work…