Foreign Aid Cuts: The Government is Playing Culture Politics as the World Rebuilds from Covid-19

Written by Jude Wilkinson


Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen here at the recent G7 Summit in Cornwall, has faced criticism from rebels within his own party over planned aid cuts.


The recent proposal by the government to cut foreign aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP marks a significant break from the technocratic approach of the Cameron and May administrations. Now more than ever, policy is tactics, and tactics is policy. The rationale behind the cut is surely distinct from our long-term foreign policy interests - after all, much of the UK’s soft power comes from its perceived willingness to act as a cooperative, humanitarian player in the international community. Maintaining this image is incompatible with reducing aid to Yemen whilst profiting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, or cutting education support in rural Pakistan, especially after the worst pandemic in fifty years.

Neither are there any urgent economic grounds for the proposed cut. The deficit is only of limited importance when interest rates are so low, and will naturally return to pre-pandemic levels as the economy recovers. And even if that wasn’t the case, the relative importance of £4 billion pales against the damage to our reputation (cynics will ask what reputation) which will almost certainly be harmed by what constitutes at the very least a form of moral inaction. After all, the UK no longer has unparalleled hard power; soft power depends on responsibility and cooperation, but it is neither responsible nor cooperative to inflict such humanitarian consequences on third-world countries in the aftermath of a pandemic.


And if soft power is affected by economic strength, for instance, what message does it send that we are economically incapable of meeting our own financial obligations? Deprived of our former military capabilities, foreign aid signals that the UK is still an economic force - what sort of economic force reneges on its commitments to those countries which are so vulnerable to the torrid conditions of global trade? But, to put it bluntly, our soft-power interests are hardly the only thing we should be worried about. From Kabul to Kampala, Syria to Somalia, British foreign aid protects untold millions from the effects of war and disease.


So there is no serious economic or security rationale to this proposal. There are, I would argue, only headlines; the sort of headlines across the Sun, and the Mail, and the Telegraph, which will mark the announcement with much aplomb and general tones of merriness. We are also witnessing the first attempt in recent years to revive the idea that reducing the deficit is an urgent economic necessity. To reiterate, this is a tactic as much as a policy. A tactic which attempts to rally the socially conservative former red-wall seats around a patently nativist agenda; a tactic which intends to outflank Labour by painting a contrast between responsible, tough-minded economic stewards and irresponsible money-wasters.


If, on the other hand, this is not merely an exercise in controlling the agenda, but a fair-minded attempt to respond to shifting economic pressures (anything is possible in these times), then I will admit that there is some truth to the allegation that foreign aid sometimes misses the mark. There are success stories, but there are also perverse inefficiencies. It has too often functioned as a means of gaining access to foreign markets under the guise of moral responsibility.


This often transactional nature to foreign aid is effectively summarised by one former US Aid Official: ‘aid is like political campaign contributions: it can facilitate access of those providing it to those receiving it’. For instance, the World Bank’s Competitive Cities strategy emphasises the importance of competitive taxes, low-cost labour and fiscal ‘sweeteners’. In another example, the 1970s ‘Green Revolution’ aid movement disproportionately benefited western agribusiness by prising open markets in the developing world. There, after all, is no such thing as a free lunch. Foreign aid famously had an enthusiastic backer in Ronald Reagan, though this was hardly out of the goodness of his heart. Rather, he saw it as a hard-headed strategy for American firms and American consumers.

Contemporary conservative critiques of the alleged inefficiency of foreign aid therefore frequently miss the mark - it functions as a foreign policy strategy, not a virtuous crusade. The motley crew of Tory rebels claim opposition on more noble, even lofty grounds, though moderate conservative thought has more often pitched the 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid as a form of enlightened self-interest. The current administration seems to be misguided in both senses: the proposed cut is neither morally enlightened, nor is it in the long-term interests of the UK. The technocratic approach of the coalition years has given way to a harder, more vicious and deliberately divisive form of statecraft.


There is something about outrage which dulls indignation, so I will summarise the proposal as objectively as possible. It has no serious economic justification. Organisations on the ground claim that it will have significant humanitarian consequences (it could leave 100,000 without water, for instance). The strategic benefits are unclear at best and counterproductive at worst. The decision will receive broadly positive coverage in sections of the media disproportionately consumed by red-wall voters, and it will receive far less positivity from more socially liberal parts of the electorate. The government is playing cultural politics at the expense of both developing nations and the country it claims to represent.


Photo source - Flickr (Number 10)