International aid is racist, say MPs – academics must help decolonise it
A committee of British MPs says aid is structurally racist – but even academics seem stuck in colonial thinking
“Racism manifests in the very structure of international aid; the sector still reflects the power relationships of colonialism.” So say the MPs of the UK parliament’s International Development Committee in a damning report on racism in the foreign aid sector, published yesterday.
How does racism show itself in international aid? The report continues: “It shows up in the terminology that aid actors use to describe the people they work with, and in fundraising campaigns which reinforce stereotypes of people in low- and middle-income countries as helpless and in need of saving.”
The committee might well have been thinking of ‘We The Helpers’, a campaign launched by a group of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in January.
The campaign – “From aid workers to donors to supporters like you, we are all the helpers” – aims to defend foreign aid in the face of a sceptical British public.
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It makes the bizarre assertion that “the world is better now than it has ever been”, when global income poverty and hunger have been increasing even according to extremely conservative measures, let alone more sensible ones.
Yet there are two deeper problems.
In recent years, some UK aid has actually exacerbated inequality and global heating
First, the campaign can be accused of a form of ‘white saviourism’. The core idea here is that the Global South, where most people are not white, depends on the generosity of the Global North, where most people are – even though nearly all of the “helpers” that it presents on its website are non-white people from the Global South. This is patronising and paternalistic.
Second, placing foreign aid at the centre of a grand narrative about human progress is misleading – and the fact that the campaign is trying to reach the somewhat cynical British public does not excuse this.
To be clear, I am against the UK government’s aid cuts. Aid can contribute to development, for instance by reducing poverty and supporting democracy. But it is only one of many instruments at the disposal of Global North countries to promote development – and a relatively unimportant one at that.
Surely academia would step up and set these international NGOs straight? Unfortunately, the Development Studies Association (DSA), a UK body for global development academics, also appears to fetishise the amount of aid given to the Global South, albeit without resorting to the sort of problematic language employed by ‘We The Helpers’.
Between 2 April 2020 (the earliest date available to search) and 22 June 2022, the DSA released seven statements, four of which focused on the quantity of foreign aid. None even engages with strategic issues regarding foreign aid.
The Global South loses an estimated $416bn a year as a result of tax abuse. The UK, with its overseas territories and crown dependencies, is a key enabler of these abuses
For example, how is aid spent? In recent years, some UK aid has actually exacerbated inequality and global heating. The UK government increasingly intends aid to serve British commercial objectives, something which is very visible in its new international development strategy. The DSA’s statements completely miss this. Nor do they mention bold ideas about transforming the aid system, such as global public investment.
More importantly, the DSA’s statements largely fail to look beyond foreign aid. They ignore other global economic justice issues such as tax and debt.
Meanwhile external public debt service by the Global South amounted to $372bn in 2020. The UK plays a central role in debt issues facing the Global South; 90% of African bonds, for instance, are governed by English law. Yet British ministers have long resisted increasing transparency, cancelling illegal and immoral loans, or paying climate debts.
The DSA statement on COVID-19 vaccines is a notable exception to its focus on aid. However, even this does not explicitly mention the need for a comprehensive waiver of intellectual property rights (IPR), something the UK has consistently opposed, contributing to millions of deaths in the Global South.
The UK government’s stance on IPR is unsurprising considering the unjust way in which it chooses to trade with poorer countries, profoundly damaging their prospects of economic advancement. In contrast with the enormous sums that the Global South loses to tax abuse and debt payments, global foreign aid officially peaked at just $179bn in 2020 – though in reality this is an overestimate, for reasons including manipulations of how aid is defined, as well as some aid being blatantly counterproductive.
Simplistic stories can be seductive and comforting
Not only are other areas of global economic justice significant in monetary terms compared with aid, they do not suffer from the problems associated with aid dependency, in particular how over-reliance on aid can make politicians in the Global South more accountable to their donors rather than to their citizens.
Furthermore, action on wider global justice issues tends to have more influence on development than aid, especially in the longer term. And in so many areas, be it providing diplomatic support for abusive governments, selling arms to authoritarian regimes, participating in the harmful ‘war on drugs’ or attempting to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, the UK’s record is again dreadful.
So why are so many people working in international development in the UK (and wider Global North) obsessed with how much aid governments give, instead of their more serious policy failings? Perhaps one reason is that simplistic stories can be seductive and comforting. Another is, perhaps, self-interest: people working in international NGOs and universities receive, or want to receive, aid funding.
Decolonising development could change this state of affairs. Although my sense is that a lot of efforts to decolonise development are superficial, genuinely positive examples do exist, such as the Kampala Initiative, which unites civil society in the Global South and North “to achieve cooperation and solidarity within and beyond aid” in ways that directly address power imbalances. The DSA and ‘We The Helpers’ ought to take note.
It is essential for those working for international development to identify the structural causes of injustices and then communicate these honestly. Otherwise we are doomed to never move beyond sticking plasters.
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