Dominic Lawson: The West's aid to Africa does nothing but ease its conscience

I do wish Cameron would break with the policy of oiling up to rock stars like Bono

Share
Related Topics

It is often said that being the leader of her majesty's opposition is to have the worst job in politics. It has its compensations, however: you can, like the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Thus David Cameron both argues for a new age of austerity in public expenditure, while insisting that the next Conservative government would not cut a penny from the £100bn a year NHS budget. This implies truly eye-watering reductions in such other departments of state such as defence – but yesterday, looking for a political response to the recent deaths of eight servicemen in Afghanistan, he suddenly declared that "we have to make available the money" for "more helicopters" for the armed forces.

Bear in mind that the Army's newest helicopters, the Chinook Mk3, will each have cost over £52.5m to get into service – yes, I know that looks like a misprint, but it's actually true – and you can see how easy it is for an opposition leader to have it every which way, especially when the Government is itself disbelieved.

Yet Cameron does have a strategy, and in this he has been a model of consistency: he wants to destroy the reputation of the Conservatives as being unconcerned about the poorest. That is the reason for the pledge on the NHS – and it is also the reason why the single other departmental budget he has declared to be sacrosanct is that of International Development.

Cameron reiterated that commitment yesterday, insisting that Britain was not a country of "fair-weather philanthropy" – as if the compulsory removal of money from citizens via tax in order to spend on politicians' pet development projects could be described as "philanthropy". In an effort to appear more sensitive to the compelled benefactors' wishes, Cameron proposed a £40m "MyAid" fund, so that people could "vote" for their favourite of 10 DfID projects. Since the total Dfid budget is around £6bn we can see just how serious this offer of choice really is.

The Tory leader also claims that, under his leadership, our International Aid will become "smarter". By this, he does not mean that DfID civil servants will work in white tie and tails, but that they will suddenly become more intelligent in how they distribute our money to the poor and needy. It's certainly true that, judging by results, those in charge of our aid budgets have been consistently and phenomenally stupid for the past half century and more. Internationally, more than $1trn has been sent to Africa over the last 50 years, during which time the sub-Saharan countries in receipt of the bulk of those funds have seen their poverty increase sharply relative to those developing countries which have received least aid.

We must stop oiling up to rock stars like Bono, who while registering his own company in the Dutch Antilles purely for reasons of tax avoidance, tells the British and Irish exchequers to cough up more billions "for Africa". They might just as well take on Amy Winehouse as an adviser on drugs policy.

Instead, they could listen to the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, whose family knows first hand how corrupting and counterproductive Western aid has been. As she recently told the Dutch paper Handelsblad: "The people in power plunder the treasury and the treasury is filled with development aid money. The corruption has contaminated the whole of society. Thanks to foreign aid the people in power can afford not to care about their people; but the worst part of it is that aid undermines growth."

Moyo, in her book Dead Aid, is understandably cynical about the West's motives for continuing with such a bankrupt policy. She argues that it is designed to "distract attention from the trade barriers they have erected, which cost Africa $500bn every year". In other words, the West's aid to Africa is nothing more than an exercise in conscience-easing. On that basis, we can see that the Dfid civil servants, and a succession of their ministers, have not been stupid at all, as Cameron implies: they have been skilful in ensuring that Britain does not fall behind in the international blame-avoidance game, an especially important aspect for a country such as ours, with the additional psychic burden of post-colonial guilt.

As Moyo would acknowledge, none of her fundamental analysis is new, but her African heritage gives her a certain moral authority that a white English male would lack; as a matter of fact a naturalised white English male, originally from Hungary, had been warning since the 1960s that grand, systemic government aid programmes would have all the effects that Moyo has recently catalogued.

Prof Peter Bauer had observed on the ground in both Malaya (as it then was) and West Africa in the 1950s how locals who were able to trade freely within gradually established markets could develop crops which lifted them above the level of subsistence and dependency. Bauer would have been astonished that Conservative politicians would still be thinking in 2009 that if only the Government could be "smarter" in its distribution, it, rather than markets, would "transform" Africa's economic prospects. It is truly an example of the aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein that one definition of madness is to perform the same experiment over and over again, in the belief that next time the result will be different.

This is not a reason for abandoning all aid – there will always be a call for disaster relief, at times of flood and famine; but in these cases private individuals acting voluntarily do step forward with genuine philanthropy, matched by taxpayers' funds, as the response to the Asian tsunami demonstrated. Even then, however, it is depressing (though not surprising) how much of those donations are stalled and enmeshed in state bureaucracy and corruption.

Yet even if the next British government were to follow the recommendations of Dambisa Moyo, those of you who would find this unacceptable can rest assured that our aid to Africa would still increase dramatically. You can see how, in the headline to a story in yesterday's Independent: Fuel Bills Set To Soar To Pay For Green Energy Plan. This was based on figures which showed that the move towards low-carbon electricity generation would add at least 20 per cent to individual households' bills.

This is hardly surprising: the Government's own estimate is that the cost of complying with its Climate Change Act would be £404 bn, or £18.3bn for every year between now and 2050. And who are the suppositious beneficiaries of this expenditure? Not Great Britain, whose rural economy would, overall, benefit from warmer climes, but the people of sub-Saharan Africa, for whom any reduction in temperatures would be a blessing.

Like the existing overseas aid budget, this too is a tremendously ineffective exercise in guilt avoidance: according to the UN Climate Panel, stabilising the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide at 550 parts per million, as intended, would reduce the rise in temperature by the year 2100 all the way down from 2.53 degrees Celsius to just ... 2.43 degrees.

Never mind; we may be consigning many thousands more British families to "fuel poverty", but at least our political leaders will be able to strut their stuff at G8 meetings and to remain the very best of buddies with Bono.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Account Manager

£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing cloud based I...

Ashdown Group: Product Marketing Manager - Software & Services

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Product Marketing Manager...

Recruitment Genius: Exhibition Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding B2B exhibition and...

Recruitment Genius: QA Technician

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of re...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, who has its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival  

FAO Jamie Dornan: For a woman, being followed is not 'exciting' — it's humiliating and all too familiar

Mollie Goodfellow
By pretending to be a man, Mulan was able to join the army, defeat the Huns, and save China  

Disney is making a live-action Mulan? Well, that's one way to ruin the best film they've ever done

Helen Pye
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat