For someone with an interest in global poverty and development, overseas aid was one of the high points of the coalition government under David Cameron. After years of unmet promises, the UK finally reached the target of 0.7% of national income spent in overseas aid, and then wrote it into law in 2014. It was the first G7 country to reach that target, despite pledges to do so dating all the way back to the 1970s.
That didn’t last long into Boris Johnson’s new ‘global Britain’ regime. The Department for International Development was closed and its activities incorporated into the Foreign Office (something Conservative governments have actually done twice before.) Then this year we learn that, promises and legal obligations notwithstanding, the aid budget will be cut from 0.7 to 0.5% of GNI. Cue satisfied nods from the back benches and from tabloid readers, who have been out to kill that target for a decade.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced “with regret” and with assurances that it was temporary, that the government couldn’t meet its target. This makes it sound as though, alas, we simply cannot afford it right now. But the aid budget in 2020 was around £15 billion. There was no sign of those empty pockets when we heard that Britain was increasing its defence spending by £16.5 billion over the next four years. Or planning to invest £27 billion in new roads. Or proposing to spend £100 billion on its covid-related ‘moonshot‘.
When there is money for other things, but not for the world’s poorest, then the excuses are not to be believed. It is simply that aid is not a priority. We could afford it. The government has chosen not to.
And the fact is, it’s easy to cut the aid budget because the most obvious beneficiaries aren’t British voters. When aid programmes are cut, the people who suffer are far away, out of sight and out of mind.
Where are they exactly? Here’s the government’s map showing the distribution of UK aid spending:
Aid is primarily spent in the world’s poorest countries, in conflict zones and yes, sometimes on key allies. The country that receives the most aid from Britain is Ethiopia, where projects include education and primary healthcare, care for refugees, climate adaptation, and institutional support for the government.
The first details emerged recently of where the cuts will fall. They translate into very specific outcomes for real people – girls who won’t be able to go to school after all. People who will see their access to healthcare withdrawn in the midst of a pandemic. An 80% cut in spending on water and sanitation means people waiting longer for clean water, even as the government continues to urge its own citizens to wash our hands. If we look at this map with a racial justice lens, it is quite clear that the majority of those missing out out on these benefits will be black and brown people.
As Ibram X Kendi writes, “a racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.” Cutting the aid budget disproportionately affects people of colour, sustains the huge wealth gaps between white western populations and people of colour in the global South, and is therefore a racist policy.
As Kendi explains, the language of ‘racist policy’ keeps the focus on power, not people. It describes the unequal outcome of a political decision, and not the personal prejudices of the decision-maker. Boris Johnson’s cabinet members may be personall prejudiced or they may not. The point is that the decisions they are taking reinforce racial inequalities. Talking about policy allows us to move beyond signalling and actually make a difference to outcomes.
Now, aid is complicated, don’t get me wrong. It can be easily abused and used as a political tool. There’s no shortage of examples of it going wrong. But it also saves lives, and it makes a huge difference to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
It’s also, to be honest, the least we can do. In the popular imagination, as propagated in the tabloids, aid is like charitable giving. It’s something dispersed to the worthy by benevolent rich countries. And with that view of aid, trimming spending when budgets are tight seems reasonable.
That view of aid is false, because overseas aid is given in a context of massive structural inequality, in a global economy that is firmly tilted towards the world’s richest. More wealth flows out of Africa every year and into the bank accounts of the richest than flows in through overseas aid and investment. Some of these wealth flows are illegal, some part of imbalanced trade relationships.
Aid also happens in a historical context. Britain took trillions out of its colonies during the days of empire – which, lest we forget – is still in living memory for many African countries. The British authorities actively held back industry locally, gearing its colonies around provision of raw materials for British factories and capturing the valued added back home. It would take centuries of vastly increased aid to ever repay this extraction of wealth.
Aid also happens in a context of climate change, where emissions from the global north destabilise conditions in the global south. Africa has made a trivial contribution to global emissions, but faces the most serious effects of the climate emergency. Compensation for this injustice is rarely acknowledged.
As I say, aid is the least we can do. If the full ecological and colonial context were acknowledged, it would completely flip our understanding of who owes what to whom.
Boris Johnson, however, does not recognise this context. That was very clear when he explained to Parliament the decision to cut aid budgets: “For too long, frankly, UK overseas aid has been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky, that arrives without any reference to UK interests or the values that the UK wishes to express, or the priorities – diplomatic, political or commercial – of the government of the UK.”
Johnson’s view is very clear – we are supposed to be the beneficiaries of UK aid. It’s supposed to advance our diplomatic, political or commercial priorities. Black lives only matter when it serves our interests.