Paul McNally
Paul McNally

If you were the UK, would you give Africa money?

Evil Santa Claus Andrew Mitchell is in the process of training the British public to accept international aid as a force that discriminates rather than helps. Can this be reversed before the UK’s aid budget skips Africa altogether?

Mitchell is the UK’s International Development Secretary and insists that the UK’s donation of £64 million to Pakistan — to help with the tragic flooding — had a self-serving element. The theory is that by stabilising a potentially threatening nation today you are saving yourself costly antagonism tomorrow. Mitchell has already claimed that his Department for International Development (DFID) has a central role in upholding the UK’s security. It’s with this ostensible frankness that Mitchell is going to give the British people what they think they want in terms of aid donation.

Despite slashing commitments, including a pledge for free healthcare in some of the world’s poorest countries, DFID has not been affected by the Conservative Party’s breezy cutting. It is ring fenced off from the process that’s tightening other British departments like education. So with each donation Mitchell’s department takes pains to acknowledge that, in these times, they know that the public has its priorities exclusively set on home soil. Mitchell plays the victim, acting as if he’s held hostage to deliver rationalisations for his department’s kindness. But during the Pakistan flooding his incredulity became obvious. Mitchell didn’t have to explain himself with Pakistan. The country needed the aid: 1 500 people have died and 20 million have been affected in what has become the country’s worst natural disaster. The fact that he framed the donation as something necessary for security rather than a humanitarian effort shows that he wanted to take the opportunity to ingrain an image of the British public as calculating when it comes to spending beyond its borders.

So why go to the trouble of constructing these images? Because a humanitarian Tory minister with his hands tied to the mast of an immoral ship is blameless. Even with his recent, potentially inconsequential, promising to charities like Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save the Children he could still turn the department’s £7.3 billion into a pot of money that’s transplantable anywhere. By carefully setting expectations, and capitalising on the public’s temporary mercenary nature from these cuts, it looks like DFID is going to get the everyman’s approval to morph international aid into something entirely different. If the public gets used to this local “added value” when donating aid then the government will be able to manipulate this parameter to spend accordingly. By rejecting obligations to almost a 100 aid projects, but retaining the original budget, international aid could, for example, dip into topping up slashed military budgets in Afghanistan. This is as long as Mitchell can show the British people that his actions have self-serving intentions for the UK.

To put it in perspective: during the month that Pakistan was flooding over, in sub-Saharan Africa — in countries that pose no security risk to the UK — 115 000 people died of HIV/Aids. And that wouldn’t be relevant if the UK government hadn’t suddenly turned aid into something of a competition. Pakistan should get the money, as much as it can, for the rebuilding process it has imminent, but other less ostentatious causes are going to get lost in the fold. The tragedy will be in seeing Mitchell’s strategy neglect global health problems in corrupt countries like West Africa’s Sierra Leone, which he has already singled out as a country unfavourable for aid. It’s a country that’s broke, difficult to handle, doesn’t offer any chance of financial reciprocity and can’t be dressed up for the British public as a threat to national security — exactly the kind of dysfunctional country international aid is intended for. Chances are it’s not going to get a penny.