Overseas aid: send in the marines?
A bit of a fuss has broken out after the Prime Minister used a press conference in India to indicate his support for spending some of DFID’s increased budget through the armed forces. Development NGOs reacted furiously to the implication that aid money could be switched to prop up the cuts in MOD budgets, while others suggested that their main worry was that the money would be deducted from what DFID gives those NGOs.
There is a real debate to be had about the role of uniformed services in aid delivery and development, but that debate is being obscured by concerns that the Conservative Party is using aid spending to detoxify their ‘nasty party’ brand.
As the Church of England’s foreign policy adviser Charles Reed pointed out in an uncharacteristically waspish blog, the Prime Minister pledged to stick to the OECD rules on what can be counted as overseas development aid, which would prevent Oxfam’s worst fears coming true. And I’ve blogged before about the Government’s plans to devote a third of its aid spending on conflict-affected and fragile states, which is, prima facie, a good idea. That doesn’t mean military involvement is necessarily a good idea, but there are things the military can do well (see a bizarrely and rollickingly good debate on our old sparring partner Tim Worstall’s blog). Unions have sometimes even found the military more sensitive to the importance of unions in developing countries than DFID or NGO field staff.
But contrary to Charles’ attack on British aid agencies, I don’t think for a minute that it’s concern about possible loss of their own funding that’s driving their reaction. Indeed, the people most worried in the aid agencies about losing DFID money are usually the ones who insist on craven acceptance of every new twist and turn of Government policy.
What I think is happening is that aid agencies are venting their suspicion that the Government is still just playing politics with the aid budget, rather than being committed to development. And they have a point. Not least because Cameron’s statement seems designed precisely to be pandering to the right-wing Civitas think tank which issued a report over Christmas – nearly two months ago – arguing precisely that DFID money would be better spent by the military, acting like a khaki International Rescue.
Civitas itself suggested that the only reason the Coalition had agreed to stick to Labour’s spending plans on overseas aid was to detoxify the Tory brand. And that’s pretty much what everyone in political life and the aid industry thinks. Essentially we’ve been waiting for the Government to revert to the Pergau Dam scandal of the last Tory-led administration. Hence the minor spats around DFID building an airstrip on St Helena or the possible trade-off of aid for India in return for arms deals.
The Prime Minister’s remarks about DFID-MOD links plays into a narrative of a Tory-led DFID pretending to support development but actually spending tax-payers’ money on a mixture of purging their sins and non-development objectives.