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When David Cameron last year committed Britain to spend 0.7% of its GDP on aid, he bought his ruling Conservative Party an air of sanctity. He is now exploiting this sanctity to push through some rather unholy changes to how Britain spends that budget.
The public conception of development aid does not include paying the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to train militaries the world over to find and kill people they have determined are terrorists.
But as of this month, people will find themselves to be sadly mistaken in thinking that the £12 billion they pay each year in taxes towards Britain’s aid budget is deployed only to reduce poverty in the developing world.
Following a successful lobbying campaign by the British government – and against the arguments of more sensible and less militarised donor nations such as Sweden – the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD has widened the definition of overseas development assistance (ODA) to allow for aid to be used for military purposes.
Helen Clark, head of United Nations Development Programme, said last week the rule changes would hurt and possibly even destabilise poor countries.
The government’s militarisation of the aid budget makes a mockery of Britain’s legal commitment to use aid only to reduce poverty and will inevitably divert development aid away from those most in need.
This is just the latest step by the government of the most radical change to how Britain spends its aid budget since 1997, when the Department for International Development (DFID) was set up by Labour.
Once out of the hobbling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party moved swiftly to expand the proportion of the aid budget allocated for security projects, allocating at least half of the aid budget to fragile and conflict-hit states.
At the same time it signalled that from now on Britain would spend aid only on projects that serve its own financial and security interests.
To finance its new security strategy, the government has beefed-up the Conflict Pool – a pot of cash for security-related projects worth £180 million in 2014 that constituted 1.5 per cent of the aid budget – into a new pot called the Conflict,Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). The CSSF will be worth £1.3 billion by the end of this parliament – around 11 per cent of the aid budget.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
At the same time the government has empowered the MoD and the Foreign Office to spend more and more of Britain’s aid budget at the expense of the DFID: over the course of the parliament the amount of aid spent outside DFID will triple to around £5 billion in 2020.
Neither the MoD nor the Foreign Office report on their projects in a systematic way, unlike DFID which reports on projects month by month. We have not had project-level data, for example, from the Foreign Office since the May election.
Transparency aside, spending aid in conflict zones on security projects has a bad precedent. The U.S. development agency USAID spent billions in post-2001 Afghanistan which was embezzled or spirited out of the country. The British government is once again falling into the American trap.
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the government’s own aid watchdog, has criticized the government’s failure to learn lessons from the past, adding that its security initiatives are “naïve” and perform “poorly” in terms of both effectiveness and value for money.
In summary, the government is spending more of the aid budget, less transparently in conflict-hit states that it thinks serve the British interest. This is a thin euphemism for a raid of the aid budget to finance costly folly in the Middle East and North Africa, most of whose nations are middle-income.
WRITING ON THE WALL
The government’s lobbying of the OECD redefinition of aid is only the latest step of a wider agenda by this government to use the aid budget to top up Britain’s military and diplomatic budget.
It is not for no reason that the refrain “Can we ODA that?” is now common in the corridors of the Foreign Office and the MoD.
The trend of allocating more and more aid for security projects in conflict-hit areas with an eye on what such spend can do for Britain’s own interests is an extraordinarily dangerous direction of travel.
Should we, for example, be using our aid budget to train in counter terrorism the security services of our allies who routinely commit human rights abuses? This would appear to sit comfortably in the remit of the government’s new aid strategy.
Counter terrorism goes hand in hand with the routine abuse of human rights as security services surveille, detain, torture and even execute those in civil society who object to their style of rule under the banner of fighting terror.
I fear that by spending our aid on militaries in fragile, often undemocratic states, we are at considerable risk of using taxpayers’ money to make these countries more fragile and more undemocratic.
My concern is not simply hypothetical.
Until 2014 UK aid was financing on a project to train Ethiopia’s quasi-military police force. The project was eventually pulled amid reports from rights groups including Amnesty International which found allegations of torture and rape by the very security services Britain was financing.
At the same time Britain was funding the police of the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly a year after reports first emerged that the force “summarily executed” civilians. The project was only pulled when the United Nations released a report on the killings.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. The permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Simon McDonald, revealed in October that human rights were “not one of the top priorities” for this government.
Diane Abbott is a Labour Party lawmaker for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and opposition spokeswoman for international development