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Labour needs to make the selfish case for foreign aid
How to appeal to the worst angels of our nature
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One of the saddest things to see on the internet is when you witness someone who you once considered a relatively thoughtful, interesting or provocative thinker get captured by their audience. At best, their opinions become achingly predictable, and at worst they become little more than a flapping mouth, belching out tired provocations to wind up their political opponents.
Anyway, on a completely unrelated note I wanted to talk about a recent tweet by controversial right-wing Professor Matthew Goodwin, who last week decided to wade into the debate over foreign aid.
“We should slash the foreign aid budget, reinvest the money into forming the National Health Service and social care system, and keep going until they actually work,” he tweeted.
And unfortunately, leaving aside his specific proposal about using the cash to reform the NHS2, this is more than just Twitter bullshit.
Aid spending has long been a favourite punching bag for the right – so much so that in 2020, the government abolished the Department for International Development (DFID) entirely, and merged its functions into the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO)3.
And more importantly, in 2021, the government abandoned the internationally agreed commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid4. But this apparently isn’t enough. Still like Goodwin above, there are influential voices on the right hankering for further cuts.
Meanwhile on the other side, the aid picture is also depressing. As we approach the next election, there are signs that Labour is incredibly nervous about foreign aid becoming a live political issue. Though the party has committed to restoring the 0.7% commitment “as soon as possible as the fiscal situation allows”, the party is reportedly planning to abandon a plan to re-establish DFID as an independent entity in Whitehall.
And from a purely political perspective, you can understand why Labour might be absolutely shitting it on this issue.
When the ‘0.7%’ aid cut was announced in 2020, according to YouGov, it was supported by 68% of the general public – and even a majority of Labour and LibDem voters. Support was as high as 92% with Tory voters and 89% with Leave voters – many of whom Labour need to win over to form a majority at the next election.
So this is one of the few remaining issues where the Tories have an advantage. Which is why we can probably expect their next election campaign to be focused on ratcheting up the salience of both scary foreigners and scary pronouns, because these are both issues where Labour’s own positions are out of kilter with the electorate at large.
The question then is how can Labour, and other people who care about foreign aid neutralise the aid question when it is raised during debates, interviews and by voters on doorsteps?
And the answer is that Labour people need to forget making the case for empathy, and instead appeal to the worst angels of our nature, and make the selfish argument in favour of foreign aid.
That’s right, because I’m not captured by _my_ audience of what I’m guessing are mostly city-dwelling, liberal Remainers, I’m going to bravely explain why foreign aid is good. Steady your pitch-forks folks! If you enjoy reading this, don’t forget to subscribe (for free!) to get more directly in your inbox.
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The selfish case for foreign aid
I find the argument that we shouldn’t fund overseas development aid incredibly strange, because it’s founded almost entirely on vibes and a desire to sound ‘tough’.
This is because though it feels like the right thing for hard-nosed right-wingers to campaign for (“sick of these freeloading foreigners”), if the policy were actually implemented, it wouldn’t actually serve any of their broader ideological goals5.
It is this reality, however, that is the key to how we should talk about aid. Though I wouldn’t exactly recommend actively bringing up the topic to wavering voters, I do think it is possible to sculpt a message that makes aid more palatable.
And the trick is similar to how I argue that we should talk about the climate cause to right-wing people. We’ve got to do some political cross-dressing, and frame foreign aid in the language and tropes of the right.
For example, if we want to stop the flow of refugees on small boats, the most effective way to do it is not create refugees in the first place by maintaining global stability and helping developing economies grow. And if we actually want to make ‘Global Britain’ a thing, spending money to make other countries like us is an important thing to do.
The selfishness frame works for other examples too. Want to stick it to the Islamists? Then the best way is to promote women’s rights and help get girls around the world get into education.
And similarly, how can we mitigate against the threat of new strains of COVID? By building out vaccination and monitoring programmes around the world, stopping the virus before it even gets to our shores6.
Crucially, the most important point is that none of this is being done out of the goodness of our hearts. These are all good things to do for cynical, self-interested reasons. We can stop the rest of the world becoming our problem by acting tough and solving problems at the source. And hey, maybe if we help the rest of the world grow more prosperous, we can create some big new opportunities for British businesses too.
The problem of corruption
“But James,” you’re thinking, “What about the elephant-in-the-room of corruption? Are you being paid off by Big Aid not to talk about it?”
I wish, but sadly not.
The reality is that corruption in foreign aid really is a problem. It is what motivated Professor Goodwin’s extremely hot take. His tweeted quoted “Post Liberal”, who himself was citing a three year old World Bank paper which estimated that 7.5% of the world’s foreign aid is siphoned off by elites in recipient countries, and finds its way into shady bank accounts in tax havens.
This is, obviously, not ideal.
Similarly, you don’t have to look too far to find other stories of dodgy aid spending, corruption, and scandals involving aid workers. I mean, forget the Wagner Group, apparently a few years ago the the non-wrestling WWF was reportedly funding its own paramilitary group.
But I’m not sure why we need to concede this is an argument against foreign aid, when it is equally an argument for doing aid better.
In fact, there are people working on this problem, and making progress. When money is dished out by Britain, you can find all of the contracts and details on a government website – like here’s the details for a useful sounding digital transformation project in Bosnia that we’re helping pay for.
In terms of evaluating impact, GiveWell monitors the efficacy of charitable giving to help donors find the most effective programmes7. I can’t see why this model couldn’t be replicated by FCDO to monitor how effective its spending is too8. And increasingly randomised control trials are talked about and used as a means of measuring efficacy of specific interventions.
But in any case, there is an uglier argument to deploy here too.
Imagine a “worse case scenario” world where corruption cannot be reduced. A world where spending money on development necessarily assumes that the local dictator’s cronies will skim a little cash from the top. Even in this situation, the slightly grim reality that the spending is probably still worthwhile.
Why? Because even if aid cash does not entirely reach its intended destination, it is still doing the job of greasing the diplomatic wheels. And this is useful in itself – as it means that next time we need a British hostage rescuing, or a vote at the UN to go the right way, we have some leverage we can lean on.
Because foreign aid is about more than supporting individual projects and do-gooding. It’s about power.
Foreign aid is soft power
What needs to change then is how we progressive types talk – and think – about foreign aid.
Mention aid to most people, and they probably imagine scenes like we see during the depressing bits of Comic Relief. No, not the grimly inevitable James Corden skit, but the bit where we see do-gooders handing out food and building schools in poor countries.
Or perhaps if they’re a little more Daily Mail-inclined, they might instead think about how we’re funding ‘stupid’ stuff – like dance lessons in Africa, or even the Indian space programme. And I’m sure when viewed in isolation, some of these spending choices can sound esoteric, ineffective or poorly targeted.
But what both of these perspectives miss is something critical: Foreign aid is soft-power.
“Soft-power” is the name international relations scholars9 give to basically all of the non-coercive power we wield and project around the world, like how Britain punches above it’s weight in terms of cultural exports10 and its scientific contributions. It’s the reason why overseas companies will seek a listing on the London Stock Exchange, and it’s why people around the world tune in to watch not Chinese table tennis, but Premier League football11.
And foreign aid projects – whether they are teaching people to dance or feeding the hungry – are soft power too. Because after all, the way you make people do what you want is either make them like you, or give them some money.
But despite this being an obvious fact of life, we often pretend that aid spending is somehow different from something called ‘British Foreign Policy’, even though it ultimately, if sometimes indirectly, serves the same goals of advancing Britain’s interests and influence around the world12.
I think what I find most frustrating about opposition to aid spending is how it completely ignores the broader international context. And this is a weakness that a ‘soft power’ frame can exploit.
In other words, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the current semiconductor war taking place between the United States and China makes clear, we’ve already entered a new era of great power competition. Similarly, though we’ve left the European Union, we’re still important members of the Western Alliance – and in the coming decades, our team is going to need all of the friends it can get.
And even if we don’t spend money on aid, you can sure as hell bet that China will – and its diplomats won’t even offer a perfunctory, finger-wagging lecture about the importance of human rights as they hand over the cash13.
This, ultimately, is what I find utterly mystifying when arguments for cutting the already meagre aid budget are made by the likes of Professor Goodwin14. It’s ultimately incredibly self-defeating, on almost every level. (And I don’t just say this because I’m some tedious Remainer who just won’t let it go.)
So if I were Labour, if pressed on foreign aid I would use the opportunity to reframe the purpose of aid spending. It’s not about being kind or helping people. It’s getting tough in the face of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. It’s a patriotic down-payment on securing global stability and the western-led world order – and it’s about building a ‘Global Britain’ that packs a punch on the global stage.
But let’s not mention it unless we have to.
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Aid spending is basically a drop in the ocean compared to the health service. And please consider this footnote a raised eyebrow at how Goodwin and his “National Conservative” colleagues would actually like to ‘reform’ the NHS.
I wish they’d just call it the Foreign Office.
Which was actually enshrined in law by noted lefty snowflake (checks notes) David Cameron.
Much the same as when people on the left argue that we should scrap tuition fees entirely.
If this doesn’t sound like a right-wing concern, then you’ve become too poisoned by America and the internet. The good news is that in Britain, aside from a tiny handful of loud cranks, across the board we’re a very pro-vaccine society, with virtually no differences between people of different political persuasions.
Incidentally this is one thing that the Effective Altruists are 100% right about. There was a super weird attempt at doing a backlash to the entire ‘ideology’ by the most tedious people on Twitter when the FTX/Sam Bankman-Fried scandal broke last year, even though at its core that “we should try and spend money effectively rather than ineffectively” is completely right.
I’m sure some aid spending is already captured by our aid programmes being delivered by charities that are subsequently monitored by GiveWell.
As former viewers of the Late Late Show sadly know all too well.
A few years ago we went on holiday to Egypt, which was quite an ‘exotic’ holiday by our non-privately educated standards. I walked around Tahrir Square feeling like I was Michael Palin, not quite believing I was standing somewhere where the Arab Spring had taken place just a few year earlier. And then I was shocked back to the reality that Egypt wasn’t really that different or far away moments later when we passed a cafe packed with Egyptian men watching Southampton vs Fulham. (And in a further demonstration of Britain’s soft-power, we had a young tour-guide who described how during the revolution his family would go out on the street and fight Mubarak’s stormtroopers. I tried to get him to tell us more about this, but all he really wanted to talk about was Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear.)
This is, incidentally, why I’m not actually that invested in the debate over whether DFID is a separate department or something that lives under FCDO. Where it sits within the UK government bureaucracy matters on one level, but the level of funding and whether Ministers and the bureaucracy is incentivised to deliver it effectively is more important. I suspect you could make arguments for DFID independence on the latter point both for and against.
It seems particularly crazy to me that basically everyone accepts the need to throw cash at Ukraine so it can arm itself to the teeth and repel Russian expansionism, and yet some people seemingly don’t extend the same logic to countering Russian and Chinese influence elsewhere.
If I really wanted to troll Goodwin’s argument that the money should be spent on reforming the NHS, I’d suggest that aid spending is probably pound-for-pound more impactful than spending on the NHS. Because what’s the marginal gain from every extra pound spent on improving NHS services, versus paying for more low-cost-per-person interventions on things like Malaria nets in Subsaharan Africa?