development politics race

Why cutting the aid budget is a racist policy

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.


  1. Labelling everything as racist will make you sound like a characture. Climate change is racist, cutting aid is racist….. It may win you friends among those who already agree with you but will be counter-productive in persuading anyone else.

    Kendi’s formulation is deeply flawed and logically can only end with enforced equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity.

    1. Listen to yourself: saying that I am labelling “everything” as racist, and then you name the two things I have written about as racist on this blog. Two posts out of almost four thousand.

      You have a different definition of “everything” than I do.

      I’m not interested in winning friends, or afraid of losing people like you who don’t like hearing about racial inequality. I just want to point out something that has been missing in the debate around aid cuts – that it will disproportionately affect black and brown people. Ergo, it is a racist policy.

      Accept it or don’t, that’s for you to decide, but don’t waste your time or mine by trying to warn me off writing about racial injustice.

      1. My point is that you literally choose the phrase ‘x is racist’. Which is a characture. If you aren’t careful you will be retweeted by Titania McGrath.

        You can write about what you like. But are you doing it to win people over and possibly change things or express yourself regardless?

        You have swallowed the deeply flawed thinking of Ibrahim Kendi which is very fashionable right now. But it has terrible implications. The UK COVID vaccination policy was racist because it vaccinated by age since that is the greatest risk factor but the old are disproportionately white. In the US some health authorities did actually consider following the Kendi reasoning and prioritised race based allocation ahead of medical need.

        Kendi only used his ideas in the context of America. Applying it to the whole world means any UK government spending is racist as it effects the UK. Useful for emotionally charged rhetoric, not so useful for actual serious policy.

  2. I don’t know who Titania McGrath is, sorry.

    You should read Ibram Kendi before you denounce the ‘terrible implications’ of his work. Your vaccination example shows that you’ve not understood it.

    Let me know when you’ve read ‘How to be an anti-racist’ and I’ll continue the conversation then.

    1. Perhaps you should discuss the misreading of Kendi with the Oregon Vaccines advisory panel.

      Have you read any criticism of Kendi, and if so what was it? He doesn’t debate those who disagree with him so his agreements are hard to test. Refusal to debate your ideas is a red flag for me but each to our own

      1. Why would I have an opinion on vaccine distribution in Oregon? The advisory panel there know their own context and I don’t. I don’t suppose you do either, so I wonder where you’ve got the idea that this is something you should be against.

        It’s a bizarre notion that their policy is based on a ‘misreading of Kendi’. It’s based on public health. If they can see that people of colour are more vulnerable to coronavirus, then directing vaccine programmes to those locations and populations makes good sense from a public health perspective. They’re making decisions based on vulnerability, not race, and the article you link to says as much. Similar decisions have been made in Luton, by the way.

        Have I read counter-arguments to Kendi? Yes. John McWhorter puts the boot in particularly effectively in The Atlantic magazine, on a regular basis. I’ve also read negative reviews of his books. Robin DiAngelo’s book has a completely different (and far less useful) take on race. I recently read Shola Mos-Shogbamimu’s book This is Why I Resist, and it would also profoundly disagree with Kendi if it engaged with it.

        Many of the critiques have a point. I disagree with plenty in Kendi’s book myself. What I’ve done is take some useful insights from it and leave others, like I’ve done with every other book I’ve ever read.

        What you’re missing by taking against Kendi is the approach that I mention in the post is a really useful way through the shrill ‘woke’ culture that so annoys you – and that you wrongly accuse me of being part of. By talking about policy and power, rather than manners and emotion, we can actually make a difference to outcomes. Otherwise we’re just endlessly tiptoeing about the issue and demanding that white people eat humble pie.

        1. Fair enough, though I do think you miss how Kendi informed thinking risks creating policy mistakes as it prioritises one set of goals over other equally important ones.

          1. Any line of thinking can be taken to extremes and that is going to lead to bad policy outcomes. That’s not an argument against Kendi, it’s an argument for wide consultation and democratic accountability in policy making.

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