Sosa Sharon argues that we need to change how we talk about foreign aid

Here in the UK we discuss foreign aid as if it were just a free giveaway of resources to those less well off around the world – an act of global goodwill.

Reporting in the press backs this up; the message is that ‘they need and we give because we are kind’. Sometimes this transforms into ‘we are noble, but they take advantage’.Take this piece in the Daily Mail, which claims that Britain lavished £300 million on the Benazir Income Support Programme in Pakistan, accusing those receiving the money of corruption.


A part of this narrative is the assumption that we are beholden to international obligations, and that giving is something that we are forced to do. The link between foreign aid, national interest and domestic politics is constantly obscured.

“The idea that you can have an aid policy that is totally ring-fenced from domestic politics is a bit of a fiction,” is the way Kevin Watkins of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) puts it.

In a time of rising right-wing populism in Europe and the USA, we are seeing countries slash their spending on aspects of foreign aid that no longer fulfil their purpose in terms of either policy objective or domestic public narrative. It couldn’t be a better time to see the connections between domestic politics and foreign aid writ large.

For example, the anti-abortionist stance taken by the current US government led to an executive order which barred federal funds from organisations that promote abortion around the world, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation. If the organisation continues to promote or offer the choice of abortion around the globe, they forfeit the $100 million the UN had received annually from the US government.

Theresa May, has confirmed that the UK will continue meeting the United Nations 0.7% aid target. However, according to a  study by think-tank The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS):

There has been a recent shift in the strategic focus of the UK aid strategy. Growing importance is now attached to promotion of the UK’s national interest. A key mechanism for achieving this, as set out in the 2015 aid strategy, has been to direct the aid budget away from DFID to other government departments and cross-government initiatives.

Yet even in the face of these strategic shifts, public opinion fails to grasp that foreign aid serves political interest first. Easy xenophobia and paternalism fuel press reporting on issues of foreign aid, meaning that public discussion never really digs into the real problems – accountability and transparency are absent.

Falling contributions to the UN illustrate the self-interested nature of foreign aid even more starkly. Donald Trump’s proposed cuts of up to 36% to the US contribution to UN programmes such as UNICEF, Peacekeeping and UNDP are a key example of how powerful countries are in no way forced to contribute when it no longer fits domestic political interests.

The Haitian Cholera crisis has required at least a $400 million strategy to combat its effects. Yet, the United Nations’ strategy to fight the epidemic, which it calls the “New Approach,” has failed to gain traction amongst member states. A trust fund created to help finance the strategy has less than  $3 million, according to the latest data on its own website. Just six of the 193 member states — Britain, Chile, France, India, Liechtenstein and South Korea — have donated.

The Lake Chad area is suffering a famine mega crisis. This is compounded by water shortages and a Boko Haram insurgency and means more than seven million people are going hungry – a population more than the size of Berlin and Madrid combined. Another 10 million people are affected by the crisis. The UN would need in excess of $1.5bn in funding to support the Lake Chad area. Despite calls for urgent action donor governments, it seems, are focusing on projects such as new sports stadiums or prototypes for combat drones in their home countries.  Effectively what we have now are ‘silent emergencies’, underfunded and underwhelmed by global response.

We have a situation where citizens in donor states feel that they are giving generously,  fatigued by a constant stream of disasters, and sick of a UN that is notorious for a lack of efficiency, with outdated spending procedures, a privileged and elitist staff, and inflated salaries amongst the claims against it.

Yet public discourse isn’t offering any avenue to interrogate these concerns. Unless we accept that foreign aid will always serve national interests first we can never have an honest discussion that holds the architects of failing policies to account. We cannot protect life-changing programmes abroad from domestic ideological shifts, and we certainly can’t claim that we’re being taken advantage of.

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Sosa Sharon loves to write and ramble about life, people and culture. You can find her work on sosasharon.com and she tweets as @sosasharon.
Featured image via Flickr Creative Commons.


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