openDemocracyUK: Opinion

International aid is the latest victim of Boris Johnson’s culture wars

The prime minister is a political parasite, feeding on distrust in dying institutions. He must be stopped before it’s too late

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
17 March 2021, 2.25pm
Boris Johnson's government is planning to slash the UK's aid to war-torn countries
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Hannah Mckay/Reuters/Alamy

There are lots of reasons why the prime minister, Boris Johnson, should not cut development aid.

Maybe the thought of the 16 million Yemenis who will go hungry this year, while living in fear of British-made bombs, might cause him to turn over at night?

Perhaps he might allow a tear for children in Syria. Those under the age of ten have known nothing but war, but Johnson’s senior civil servants have discussed cutting aid to them by two-thirds.

Or maybe he feels a sense of guilt over Libya? Ten years ago, then prime minister David Cameron spent £320m on bombing the country. A decade later, it is still smouldering in civil war, and Johnson plans to cut its aid by 63%.

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People in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan will also see cuts of more than 60%, as the prospect of a post-pandemic famine lurks on the horizon.

Maybe Johnson doesn’t think it’s his job to care about people outside Britain. But what about the £120m for UK universities, which will be pulled with just four months' notice? Perhaps he might worry about scrapping research into, for example, combating diseases similar to COVID-19?

Or maybe, as he pushes through an expansion of police powers over ordinary people, he might contemplate the optics of slashing the National Crime Agency's international anti-corruption work? Bolstering riot cops to assault protesters while sacking their colleagues who track the wealth stolen by the mega-rich isn’t exactly a good look.

Only 3% of Tory voters thought that cutting aid was the wrong thing to do

Even if the prime minister doesn’t care about any of those things, you would think that he might at least believe in his own nationalist pomposity. In the modern world, soft power is real power. If you go to the biggest refugee camp in the Palestinian West Bank, you’ll find Russian flags on the lamp posts along its main road; Putin didn’t pay to pave the street because of his generosity of spirit. I may not be particularly concerned about Britain’s ability to bend the world to its will, but you’d think the prime minister would be.

There are many good reasons not to cut the aid budget, but for Johnson, it seems there is an even better reason to go ahead. Doing so is, at the moment, hugely popular.

A YouGov poll late last year showed that 66% of British people support cutting foreign aid, with only 18% opposing. Only 3% of Tory voters thought that cutting aid was the wrong thing to do.

Aid hasn’t always been so unpopular. In September 2008, 49% of people were in favour of increasing it – despite the fact that the public as a whole likely radically overestimates the UK’s aid budget. Such a drastic change in public opinion doesn’t come out of nowhere.

NGOs vs the tabloids

When the UK hosted the G8 in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people marched through Edinburgh demanding, among other things, ‘more and better aid’. To mark the occasion, The Sun gave away a special ‘Make Poverty History’ CD, complete with a message from Nelson Mandela. Campaigners had organised, shifted public opinion, and forced even the most nationalistic papers to follow their lead.

Last November, the tabloid’s columnist Rod Liddle bellowed their more recent line: “Last year we spent an incredible £15.2billion of your money on overseas aid. An awful lot of that money went into the Swiss bank accounts of Third World tyrants. Terrific.” He provided no reference for the claim.

Since 2005, the big global development NGOs haven’t organised a single major mobilisation against global poverty. There has been almost no widespread public organising on the issue. The last time the UK hosted what’s now the G7, in 2013, the big charities were so supine, they got Cameron’s government involved in planning their own campaign, aiming to give him a ‘golden moment’.

To no one’s surprise, it didn’t exactly take off: global capitalism had collapsed, and the people meant to fight poverty had got into bed with the party of austerity.

Instead of serious organising, these NGOs have heavily over-relied on behind-the-scenes lobbying, a sort of cargo cult of corporate influence, without any of the financial backing. And without grassroots political power, they have hesitated before standing up to the school bully.

Even now, as they discover that it’s their lunch money that’s being taken, they’ve been hesitant to speak out. Though, of course, it’s not them who will miss a meal.

Culture war

For Boris Johnson, aid cuts contribute to a wider story he’s keen to tell the country: a sense that he’s railing against some ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, that he’s on ‘your’ side against a web of distant and abstract institutions. ‘Your’ side, that is, if you’re ‘one of us’.

And it’s a story that resonates with many. In 2017, I wrote in The Guardian about my experience of interviewing people across the English Midlands about charity. Of course, views tended to be filtered through lenses hewn in race and nationalism. But the many, many objections I heard to international aid tended not to be about the people receiving help, but the organisations giving it.

And it’s no wonder. Look at the Oxfam scandal, the Save the Children scandal, the WWF scandal – and there is the simple fact that, as one woman in Birmingham put it to me, “We've been giving for years and seen no benefit.”

For years, the research company Edelman has been polling countries around the world about trust in institutions. And in recent years, they’ve found a collapse in trust in NGOs. The result, for many, is that they fall back on believing only what they can see. “Trust,” as Edelman says in its 2021 report “is local”. People I interviewed may want to help someone in Somalia – though their attitudes towards them will often be coloured with a patronising racism. But they had no faith that the money was actually helping.

As one woman in Birmingham put it to me, 'We've been giving for years and seen no benefit'

Boris Johnson is a political parasite, feeding on distrust in dying institutions. When people don’t believe in the means they have to collaborate across society, they huddle together as families, and fall back on old hierarchies: race, class and nationality. They tend to become, in other words, more conservative.

When the former Canadian prime minister, Lester Pearson, proposed in his 1969 report for the World Bank that rich countries should give 0.7% of their gross national income in aid, it was already clear that the world was changing. “A decade which began with the all but total liquidation of the old colonial order has ended with man walking on the moon… It becomes more apparent with every passing day that the interests of each nation and each man are inseparable from those of others” he wrote, in its introduction.

The changes we’ve seen over the past decade easily outstrip those of the 1960s . And as the world did then, we need once more to look closely and together at how we do aid: not to give less of it, but how to build a modern movement to give more, to give better, and to design together a fairer global economy.

At their worst, development budgets are cynical ways to entrench an unjust global system. But at their best, they are a way to redistribute wealth stolen from generations of imperial plunder, the beginnings of a system of genuine global solidarity.

The alternative to fighting for that is allowing Johnson and his outriders to turn the guns of culture war onto one less powerful group after another. And we can’t let that be the next decade of our politics. It’s time to stand up to the bullies.

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