A leaky ship? The UKIP manifesto commitments to international development and aid

I’ve done the dirty work and gone through the UKIP manifesto section on international aid, so you don’t have to. No need to thank me.

Where to start? Well the big item, as you would expect, is aid: Britain is paying far too much of it, and it doesn’t do any good anyway.

“Only UKIP believes our foreign aid budget should be reduced and reallocated to the NHS and other struggling public services. We are not afraid to say charity begins at home, that the primary responsibility of a British government is to protect British interests and improve the lives of the British people.”

More money for the NHS, taken from a bloated budget spent mainly on foreigners? I’m sure we’ve heard that before?

But to be fair, this isn’t just a UKIP obsession. Look for comments on the Labour and Conservative manifestos, and plenty of their supporters are saying much the same thing: money should be spent in the UK, on the NHS, on the poor at home (a point always slightly undermined when accompanied by complaints about the amount of money spent on welfare to the, er, British poor). And there is no doubt that public support for international aid has fallen considerably over the past decade or so, fuelled by the obsessive distortions of newspaper campaigns by the likes the Daily Mail.

Back to the UKIP manifesto. So on what basis are they saying British aid is at too high a level? It begins with an uncited ‘study’ by the World Economic Forum which concludes that aid “has no effect on growth.” I think this is the report being cited, a paper by International and Development Politics Professor, Axel Dreher, at Heidelberg University. And it does indeed conclude that “there is no robust evidence that aid affects growth”. But, there is a caveat to that conclusion that the manifesto does not go on to quote:

“Of course, this does not imply that aid is necessarily ineffective. Much of the aid is not given to affect growth in the first place… the motive can affect the outcome. Such aid thus cannot be expected to increase growth but should instead be evaluated with its own goals in mind.”

Hardly the categorical dismissal of aid that it is presented as.

It is worth noting that there is an extensive debate on aid effectiveness, and that there is no consensus position on how effective it is (or is not), when it is (or is not) effective, and under what conditions. Most positions take the line that aid can do some things quite well, but not others; and the extreme positions of those such as Dambisa Moyo, that all aid increases poverty, are relatively rare, and rely on limited and partial evidence and data. More importantly aid is generally framed as a tool for combatting poverty rather than focusing on delivering economic growth. So the question is not whether aid impacts on growth, but on whether it reduces poverty and issues associated with poverty.

For other evidence for the failure of aid to bring about development, UKIP presents an historical analysis of trends: “between 1970 and 1998, when aid flows to Africa were at their peak, poverty in Africa worsened”. Again, we could expend thousands of words on this statement, but let’s limit ourselves to a brief rewrite of that sentence: “Between 1970s and mid-1980s, economic crises, collapses on commodity prices, and the impact of HIV and AIDS across parts of the continent, led to sharp falls in government revenues, increased poverty and increased reliance on foreign aid, which peaked in the early 1990s”. One can’t help but feel someone in UKIP (Lisa Duffy, the UKIP Foreign Aid spokeswoman?) misread the manual on which way round to fix up the cart and horse).

The policies that follow from this analysis are fairly obvious:

  • Reduce aid spending to 0.2% of gross national income
  • Abolish DFID and re-house international development in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (its pre-1997 home)
  • Focus on humanitarian aid, health, water (the things that sound ‘charitable’ and are therefore acceptable to the patriarchal, almost Victorian view of British magnanimity that UKIP subscribes to).
  • Make sure British organisations are first in line for contracts (and a definite no-no to giving any money to the profligate International Rescue Committee, which had the temerity to hire David Mililband: though quite why Miliband appears to be the main subject of UKIP ire is not clear).
  • Build a hospital ship to solve the problems of global humanitarian disasters
  • Push for ‘ethical’ (free) trade…

Sorry, let’s back that up a bit, a hospital ship? Yep:

“To increase the contribution Britain can make in times of global crises, UKIP will commission, equip and staff a Naval Ocean-Going Surgical Hospital (NOSH)”.

It will have at least 500 beds, will support helicopters and vehicles, and “will help confirm Britain’s status as a force for good in the world”. Well, presumably not for those in Nepal, eastern Congo, or other land-locked areas which may suffer from humanitarian crises. Sorry Malawi, no British-provided health for you.

I’m now beginning to think that UKIP’s policy advisor is Captain Pugwash (a nice 1970s TV reference there, just to alienate anyone under the age of 40). I’m not sure that the main cry for assistance in the field of global health is for another hospital ship (plenty of these exist in any case); and it does suggest a somewhat limited engagement with humanitarian agencies as to what might be of use (I’d guess they might suggest not abolishing DFID, not cutting back on aid spending, and not buying a new boat).

And that final one: ethical trade will eradicate poverty, an idea which, according to UKIP “even Bono has … admitted” is a good strategy (I don’t recall Bono ever saying trade was a bad idea, but perhaps UKIP policy makers listen to some of U2s more obscure albums). Again, this completely misrepresents the arguments of those wanting to maintain aid: no-one has ever argued aid is in place of trade, that trade, industrialisation, etc are not important. UKIP don’t seem to have thought through how some countries can spend money upfront to increase exports and create industries, whilst maintaining spending on critical services and other investments.

So, there you have it. UKIP “will not engage in unethical trade practices”, but will cut the programmes on which millions of the world’s poorest depend. And there is that boat, of course.

 

After all this, I’m tempted to leave there. We all have a bit of a chuckle, safe in the knowledge that UKIP’s chances of being anywhere near the next government would still be limited if a meteor wiped out all rival election candidates. And yet, when UKIP first emerged plenty of people laughed at its prospects, only to see a referendum and Brexit. UKIP may be marginal, but their narratives, supported by a section of the media keen on distorting reality, have influenced British political debates profoundly. And here we have a discourse on aid that many Conservative and Labour voters would agree with. So before we simply dismiss UKIP’s leaky ship as being irrelevant to future policy, let us remember that. When the next big challenge to DFID and UK aid comes from politicians within the Conservative Party, from UKIP, supported by the likes of the Mail, presenting ‘alternative facts’ and distorting the realities of UK aid, and tapping into growing public antipathy to aid, it won’t look quite so funny then.

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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