Since the 2016 referendum, the Conservative Party’s Global Britain agenda has repurposed international development to suit the interests of British businesses and the City of London. By merging the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Boris Johnson is accelerating this trend and taking us back to the “bad old days”, with aid now likely to be used to facilitate post-Brexit sweetheart trade deals.
A decade of austerity has seen successive governments double down on this market-based approach to education, healthcare – even tackling climate crisis. Meanwhile these governments have pursued a parallel policy of extending that market to international aid. Development work has been increasingly privatised and financialised since 2010, the now Conservatives’ recent election result, securing Boris Johnson a strong working majority in parliament, has created the opportunity to do away with DfID altogether.
Yet although the proposed merger of the two government arms appears to have support among the right-wing policymakers such as the Henry Jackson Society think tank and with Dominic Cummings, there is significant cross-party opposition from senior Conservative MPs, including from a former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, and the former chair of the International Development Committee, Stephen Twigg. Many critics and NGOs are worried that the move will lead to the government reneging on its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNP on aid (Cummings is rumoured to be very keen on that).
But this misses the point, because for years the coalition and Conservative governments have significantly diluted that 0.7 per cent. Instead of reaching the most marginalised communities in the world, development funding is being used to invest in private school chains, environmentally damaging industries and private healthcare companies. Not only do these investments have questionable development impact; they also undermine efforts to tackle the climate crisis, reduce inequalities and build strong public services in the global south.
The bending of development policy to the will of the private sector can also be seen in the £150m Prosperity Fund which is using development funding to “facilitate free trade” and increase market access for UK businesses in middle-income countries. Another example is the UK-Africa Investment Summit planned for January 2020, which will see 20 African heads of state meet British businesses in London. The summit has been nakedly designed to promote the City of London as a development finance hub and to position the UK as the largest investor in Africa. The event seems to be less about development strategy and more about the expansion of the UK’s economic power over the continent of Africa – a move that smacks of neocolonialism.
Some of the most egregious investments have been made through CDC, the UK’s development finance institution. Despite the urgency of climate crisis and ministers’ claims to the contrary, CDC has continued to invest in coal-powered infrastructure in Africa, as well as heavy-fuel oil burning power plants and plastic production. This includes a $16.6m investment in South African port operator Grindrod to facilitate the export of coal to China; a $144m investment in the coal-burning cement producer ARM Cement in 2016; an undisclosed investment in the Maria Gleta heavy fuel oil power plant in Benin in February 2019; and another undisclosed investment in Atlas Bottling Corporation, a “leading bottler of carbonated soft drinks in Algeria…[which] sells its products under the leading PepsiCo international brands”.
It is highly questionable why development funding should be given to such polluting industries or why – if they are so profitable and essential to African economies – they are unable to attract private investment and must rely on overseas state development funding to grow.
This is the reality of handing over development policy to unaccountable financial institutions and the private sector. Decisions on how to spend our scarce aid funds appear to be made on the basis of what may be profitable for British businesses, not what is best for people and the planet.
Wherever international development is managed in Whitehall, what matters are the principles behind it. There is dire need for an alternative vision which eschews a pro-market dogma and moves away from the tired old tropes of benevolent white benefactors handing out charity to their former colonial subjects. A better, modern approach could focus instead on capacity building, preventative public health, tackling the climate crisis, reversing global economic inequalities and developing a system of genuine tax justice (Labour’s election commitment to convert CDC into an international green investment bank was at least a nod to this).
The British public is incredibly passionate about protecting the NHS and supporting the public provision of healthcare and education in the UK, and we must extend those British values to the rest of the world. Sure, this is unlikely to happen under Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” agenda, but it is time that progressive, internationalist forces in the UK at least agreed on an alternative way forward.
Daniel Willis is policy and campaigns manager for Global Justice Now.
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