Zimbabwe’s non-coup coup

As with many of my colleagues, I’ve been reflecting on Zimbabwe over the past week since the military took control of the state broadcaster to announce that whatever people may hear or see, this was emphatically “not a military takeover of government”. The non-coup coup saw tanks taking to the streets, President Robert Mugabe placed under house arrest under military guard, and a concerted push by the military and parliament to ease the old man out of his throne, before an eventual letter of resignation read out to cheers in parliament. Much has been written and said about this, by people far more expert in Zimbabwean politics than I. But having spoken a bit about this quite a lot on various media outlets, and discussed with a number of colleagues, now seemed as good a time as any to try and make sense in my own mind of the past 10 days.


It’s all about the Mugabes.

It is very tempting when trying to work out what has happened in a political crisis to focus on an individual or a group of individuals, as the cause of that crisis, and build the narrative of events around them. So it is no surprise that much of the analysis in the UK and North American media has focused on the role of Robert Mugabe and the ill-fated ambitions of his wife, Grace. Indeed, the story fits perfectly into the Macbeth-narrative of politics, wherein an ambitious and ruthless ruler, driven by a sense of his destiny, is pushed ever further in those dreams by the even more ruthless and ambitious wife. And that is certainly the spin that many commentators have put on this. After all, with monikers such as ‘Gucci Grace’ and ‘the Crocodile’ in play, alongside the pantomime villain that Robert Mugabe has become in much of Europe and North America, the pressure to push the understanding of what has been going on down this path must have been irresistible.

 But whilst this may sound like a strange point to make given the focus on Mugabe and his wife, this really isn’t about Mugabe (either of them). The sacking of Emmerson Mnangagwa was the catalyst, not the cause; and the purpose was not so much about destroying Grace’s bid for the succession. It was about ZANU-PF and its determination to stay in power.

The events of the past ten days were inevitable. Perhaps not in the particular form it took, but in terms of the instability of the succession, and the willingness of a central cohort of ZANU-PF leaders in alliance with the military to secure control over the state. Mugabe wasn’t ejected because he was an awful president who had destroyed the economy and stamped hard and brutally down on any voices of opposition that dared speak out. He wasn’t ejected because of jealousy over Grace. He was forced to resign because he no longer had the authority to maintain the power of ZANU-PF and the senior officials who benefit from control over the state. Had Grace Mugabe been seen as the one to have such power, had she been seen as someone who could ensure the same members of the elite continued to exercise authority and control (over economic as well as political spheres), the bitter factional struggle may have looked very different. And if it hadn’t been Grace, at some point in the near future, there would have been someone else challenging the old guard for power.

So we need to think about what this tells us about ZANU-PF, and its ability to hold onto power through alliance with economic and military elites. Mugabe was old, his policies were failing, but it was the fate of ZANU-PF rather than Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans that led to action. And this is relevant for understanding politics and the function of political parties far beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, especially perhaps, but not solely, for liberation parties who have clung to power through the evolutionary process of changing leaders and leader generations.


The Crocodile’s dilemma

This creates difficulties for the assumed successor to Mugabe, his former right-hand man Emmerson Mnangagwa. This was not a revolution sweeping away the old guard, allowing a new generation to take control of the party and in doing so transform ZANU-PF into something new. This was the old guard securing its control of the party and state, against would-be challengers from a different generation.

But two things have happened. Firstly, the authority and power of the military to determine who serves the best interest of ZANU-PF has been brutally exposed. At 75, Mnangagwa does not have long before questions start to be asked about who his successor will be, and he cannot rely on possessing a similar extraordinary longevity to Mugabe to see off other contenders. He will know that as soon as he can no longer be relied upon to protect ZANU-PF against challengers from inside and outside the party, he too will be under pressure to go. And that point may come sooner rather than later.

Secondly, the genie of popular protest has been let out of the bottle, and getting it back in, and stopping up the bottle, may prove harder than anticipated. By calling on people to support the non-coup coup to put pressure on Mugabe to go, will people fuelled by anger and promises made, and in possession of new tools for mobilising action (remember, this is a country where around 3 in every 5 people is under the age of 25) be willing to have that power taken away? Brutal oppression might work, afterall the hopes of the Arab Spring were quickly dashed in many countries. But the risk for ZANU-PF is that it might not. And what happens then?

Mnangagwa will talk up his democratic credentials and aspirations. If he is sensible, he will engage with the opposition (if only to co-opt it as happened in the last unity government). Western donors and neighbouring governments will have a pragmatic interest in accepting at face values commitments to an open political and economic system. But an unstable new element has been added to the mix, and if promised changes don’t come, or don’t come quickly enough, we may see the power of the street presenting a bigger challenge than the ZANU-PF bigwigs anticipate. The stage is set, at some point, for a clash, especially if, as some commentators are saying, Mnangagwa fears he would not win a free and fair election.


When is a coup not a coup

And finally, was this a coup or not? The government may not have been overthrown in the classic sense, but the president was forced from office; and even if we give some credence to the impact of the threat of impeachment, that was only possible through the intervention of the men in military fatigues. That impeachment, and the repeated assertions it was for Mugabe to resign rather than being pushed, don’t really take away from the fact that pushed he was.

So this was a coup. But it was nevertheless a strange kind of coup: bloodless, no military junta taking over the reins of power with promises of a future transition, and broad continuity in government. This reflects the growing importance of democratic transitions and elections as a source of legitimacy across sub-Saharan Africa, where old style dictators who simply hold onto power have given way to autocrats who manipulate constitutions and rig elections to provide themselves a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy.

No longer is it possible to simply bundle the unfortunate deposed leader into a car, for them to disappear into exile or worse. The African Union, as well as international donors, frown upon cold-war style military coups, and punish those who take power through them. It isn’t just about international legitimacy: legitimacy of the street also increasingly matters. The military leadership in Zimbabwe may have misjudged Mugabe’s stubbornness and unwillingness to concede he had lost his authority, but they understood the need to gain popular support for what they were doing, and to pretend that this wasn’t what it looked like. Could this be repeated elsewhere? Elderly leaders with ambitious colleagues with links to the military might be sleeping a little less easy in their beds tonight. 

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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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A sting in the tail: Conservative plans to change the definition of ‘aid’

The Manifesto 2017 blog post was long, very long, and the really important bit was buried at the end. So kudos if you made it all the way through. But for those with less time to meander through my stream of consciousness thoughts on the various pledges and promises on international development made in the manifestos of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem parties, let’s cut to the chase.

There is one big policy difference between otherwise largely similar promises (to protect the 0.7% commitment on spending, to focus on health, education, climate change), and it is a change that could completely undermine the importance of the 0.7% commitment.

Buried deep in the Conservative manifesto is the following statement:

“We do not believe that international definitions of development  assistance  always  help  in  determining  how  money  should  be  spent,  on  whom and for what purpose.  So we will work with like-minded countries to change the rules so that they are updated and better reflect the breadth of our assistance around the world. If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 per cent target.”

So what is this about? What are the rules that the Conservatives want to change? Aid can only be counted as official aid if it is for the purposes of economic development and welfare; and if it is concessional with at least 25% in grant form. But the rules referred to here are the restrictions on what counts, or does not count, as aid.

  • The costs of military equipment or services are not counted as aid (the military can be involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the costs of that delivery can be counted)
  • Anti-terrorism activities do not count as aid
  • Peacekeeping expenditures are mostly excluded from consideration as aid
  • Cultural activities count if they are aimed at building cultural capacity of recipient countries, but not if they are one-off tours by donor country artists, sportspeople, musicians, etc.

Is this an attempt to send Sting to Senegal for a one-off concert? Or an exhibition of Damien Hurst bejewelled skulls in Bangladesh? Does the government want David Beckham to lead an all-stars football team to play an exhibition match in Cameroon? All of which should count towards that 0.7% target?

Of course not. This is primarily about spending through the military (and in this aspiration for a change of rules, the US is a willing partner), and to a lesser extent spending by other government departments in the UK, in the UK, but which can fall under the ‘aid’ budget line.

By allowing more military spending to count as official aid, the Conservatives can meet both their commitment to maintaining the 0.7% spending level for aid, but also meet its commitment to increased defence spending through reallocation rather than finding actual new resources. It means counter-terrorism activities can be funded through aid budgets (would Prevent become an international development activity?) And it would allow for a closer identification of UK national strategic interests, and development spending.

This is a terrible idea, which would compound the problems caused by the securitisation of aid over the past two decades. A full-out assault on what remains of the barrier between humanitarian and military activity in complex emergencies would undermine not only the core understanding of what aid is and should be, but create suspicion and hostility towards development actors globally.

It’s pretty likely that the Conservatives will win the election. At which point, this will become a key battleground for the future of aid, not just in the UK, but globally. Should this be enacted, there will be less for poverty reduction, less for climate change, less for health and education support. There will be more instability, more protracted conflicts, and greater threats to both humanitarian actors and civilian populations. So, if you need one, here’s another reason to vote on June 8th. And when (if?) May returns to Number 10 on June 9th, start planning right then how to stop this particular idea in its tracks.


[If you want to read my thoughts on all three manifestos, and more detail on the promises, pledges and commitments, they in the previous post here]

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UK Election 2017 Manifestos and International Development: common ground and clear water

With the election coming up, I thought it would be interesting to look at the commitments to international development in the manifestos of the Labour Party, Conservatives and Lib Dems.

The day-to-day realities of election campaigns tend to soon undermine the carefully calibrated and plotted plans of campaign managers. So this election that was intended (by the Conservatives) to be the Brexit Election has already moved in new directions as the policies put forward in the manifestos come under scrutiny and attack.

International development rarely features centrally, and mostly not even peripherally, in election campaigns. In part this reflects the fact that, by-and-large, elections are fought on domestic issues not international ones, and where foreign policy issues do feature in the debate, they are often around reactions to wars and other military ventures (the 2005 election in aftermath of the disastrous Iraq war, which saw many people switch from Labour, though not enough to prevent re-election; and the 1983 election which saw a big increase in the Conservative majority following the Falklands conflict).

But the lack of debate also points to a level of historical consensus around policy in this area, a consensus that since Cameron publicly committed to spending 0.7% of national income on international development as part of the strategy to detoxify the Conservatives, has grown. The transformation of the Department for International Development into one of the largest and most influential global development organisations has further made it harder to highlight showstopping policies that might lead DFID in radical new directions.

The general consensus is not a new thing. Generally, Britain’s overseas development activity has had broad support, for overall approach if not always on specific policies. Baroness Linda Chalker, minister for overseas development from 1989 to 1997 was largely respected across party lines and by many working in the sector. The shift to a new ministry – the Department for International Development (DFID) under Blair’s first Labour administration in 1997 – was a shift in scale and ambition, more than a radical break in policy.

But the creation of DFID has had important consequences, not just for international development (with far more resources available, DFID has been far more ambitious over the past two decades, and has turned into a global leader in international development), but also for foreign policy and Britain’s global presence. This transition has quickened since 2010, and the gutting of foreign office budgets as part of the Conservative-led austerity drive. As DFID’s budgets were not only protected but increased, that of its former home, the FCO, declined. And power has followed the money. The DFID in-country offices increasingly have more influence than the ambassadors and high commissioners. Indeed, many new FCO appointments have come from DFID rather than up-through the FCO ranks following the traditional route to diplomatic service (some voices in the FCO are complaining that the brightest of bright sparks are choosing to go to DFID rather than FCO, further undermining its influence within government).

This means that DFID and UK’s international development strategy really should matter in an election, especially one which is still dominated by questions as to Britain’s place in the world, to whom it has its closest links, and how it seeks to promote global change. International development manifesto commitments should, perhaps, be given greater scrutiny.

But if there is so much common ground, where are the key points of difference? Are there any? The main differences are less in policy than in the tone and emphasis the promises imply. And this is not unimportant: tone matters. We can see subtle shifts in policy change and direction flowing from the transition from Clare Short’s period as Minister to Baroness Valerie Amos, and subsequently Hilary Benn, in 2003. Similarly, from 2010, with the appointment of first Andrew Mitchell under the new Conservative administration, again a tonal shift, this time one that saw a gradual turn towards emphasising jobs, economic growth and the private sector that continued under Justine Greening. And with Priti Patel, a further shift towards identifying international development policy with UK national interests, especially post-Brexit. The impact on policy is subtle, and emerges slowly, but it does impact.

So tone matters, and here, more so than in 2015, we can perhaps see real differences opening up, differences that could potentially if not change direction, then mark a slight but significant march off the centre line depending on who wins.


The common ground

The big area of common ground is the 0.7% commitment, found in all the Big 3 manifestos. So this means international development spending is safe, right? Well, perhaps not. But we’ll come to that at the end (spoiler alert, it definitely isn’t safe – at least, not in its current form, and it is an important potential change).

The specific promises for what DFID would focus on under Labour, Lib Dem or Conservative governments are hardly surprising: health, climate change, education, and to on extent taxation).

Health, a longstanding priority of DFID under previous Labour and Conservative administrations, remains central. All three promise to invest in research for treatments and programmes for preventable diseases. The Labour Party pledges to create a Centre for Universal Health Coverage to push for UHC across developing countries: a policy that sounds more radical than it is (even the World Bank is a supporter of UHC). The Conservatives identify microbial resistance as a key area for investment; the Lib Dems go for the standard (but important) HIV, TB and malaria, and talk of research for vaccines. But the Lib Dems also promise that as a response to “the US government’s dangerous and anti-science attacks” on vaccination and family planning, they will protect global spending in these areas. On balance, the Lib Dems look more carefully thought out and precise in their plans, and their promise to support family planning and vaccination is important.

The environment and climate change are central to all three, too. The Lib Dems make much of the need to build international cooperation, and strengthen multi-lateral responses against isolationism; with Labour pointing to the Paris Declaration commitments as a priority. The Tories don’t frame their response in such an internationalist language, but do add habitat degradation and species loss to their list of priorities. Again, no big differences here, but perhaps top marks again to the Lib Dems for the greater emphasis on global action, with Labour a close second.

Labour and the Lib Dems both promise to tackle the thorny issue of taxation. Labour promise decisive action on tax havens (though the manifesto focuses largely on UK overseas territories and crown dependencies, ignoring the haven that is the City of London). The Lib Dems are more interesting, focusing not just on tax havens, but on ensuring British companies pay more taxes in the developing countries in which they operate, and promising large companies will be required to show how much tax they pay in each country.

Meanwhile the Tories and Lib Dems both promise to prioritise education. The Conservative manifesto pledges to focus on education of women and girls. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems move beyond bland generic statements and add some specifics, saying they will develop a global education strategy and push for global commitments to ending the  funding shortages which result in 263 million children missing school.

So if on the big areas (how much should be spent, health, education, climate, tax) there is broad agreement across all three (or in some cases across two), where are the differences?


A labour commitment for the Labour Party

In addition to the commitments described above, the Labour Party also promises:

  • An annual report to parliament on how DFID has performed in relation to meeting the SDG targets.
  • The reinstatement of the Civil Society Challenge Fund (which ran from 2000 – 2015), and the closure of which was seen as further evidence by some of growing antagonism between the Conservative government and civil society groups (especially NGOs) who in the absence of an effective opposition, were often leading the criticisms of government policy.
  • Least developed countries to have full access to UK markets to protect export revenues: a continuation of existing policy.
  • New regulations will ensure for-profit DFID contractors must spend money on reducing poverty, not on generating profits (a policy that also looks more radical than it is: such companies will be able to still bid for projects, and demands for greater transparency and regulation are fairly universal, from left-wing political parties to orthodox international finance and development institutions).
  • A Labour government would seek to improve conditions in global supply chains. British businesses operating globally will be required to respect human rights for workers, ensure compliance with regulations on environmental sustainability, and regulations on corporate responsibility for abuses in global supply chains will be tightened (motivated, no doubt, by relatively recent scandals in textile factories, as well as less publicised, but equally shocking treatment of workers producing goods for UK markets). Workers producing goods for UK supermarkets will be protected by UK regulations no matter where they live.
  • The Labour Party also promises a review on refugees through a cross departmental strategy on meeting international obligations in respect of the refugee crisis within 100 days. Disappointingly, no actual commitment to honour previously-made commitments to child refugees at the very least. And will there even be 100 days before crisis hits, if Macron decided to push for changes to the current border regime in Calais.

The Labour manifesto signals a tonal break with DFID discourse under the Conservatives. The focus on the private sector is quite clearly being replaced by greater emphasis on civil society and the role of the state. There is a shift from looking to the importance of job creation as a means of reducing poverty, to protecting the rights, conditions and treatment of the workers already in employment. Unsurprisingly, given the rest of the manifesto commitments, British companies could expect more regulations over their foreign activities; and in the long-run would we see a decline in the number of for-profit development organisations bidding for projects, and an increase in consortia of non-profits?


Trying hard: the Lib-Dem commitments

To seasoned manifesto watchers, the Lib Dems have often come up on top with carefully thought out proposals, and appear more embedded in the language and discourse of international development (reflecting, perhaps, a greater influence of development experts in writing policy in this area).

In terms of tone, this is (unsurprisingly, given other pledges around Brexit) a set of development commitments that put their internationalist credentials front and centre: calling for commitments to international cooperation and rules; supporting multilateral organisations against the threats from the rising ride of unilateral, bilateral and isolationist politics. For Lib Dems, the purpose of international aid is to “promote the liberal values of human rights and democracy throughout the world.”

Kudos as well for use of the term ‘resilience’, showing someone has been paying attention to DFID and other development organisation publications and project-calls. The Lib Dem manifesto is bang on trend with its promise to focus on building resilience in poor countries against disasters through investing in healthcare and infrastructure, and training emergency response teams, as well as generously responding to new humanitarian crises.

And respect, too, for responding directly to He Who Shall Not Be Named But Whose Tweets Cannot Be Avoided, in openly attacking “the US government’s dangerous and anti-science attacks” on vaccination and family planning. This is especially interesting given the questioning of Farron over his stance on abortion. Let’s hope the Yellow-Haired One doesn’t read the manifesto, or his surety [sic] that he is the most maligned politician in history will be reaffirmed.


What do you mean that doesn’t count? The Tory manifesto and international development

The only major difference in actual focus offered by the Conservative manifesto is a focus on modern slavery. But there are some important tonal differences, ones that will have an impact on policy. And there is also a nasty sting in the tail.

In terms of tone, the most significant is the way that the purpose of international development is framed. The manifesto states:

British  aid  helps  millions  and  is  a  powerful  statement  of  Global  Britain’s  place  in  the  world.  It  protects  our  interests:  by  building  a  safer,  healthier,  more  prosperous  world,  we  can  protect  our  own  people  from  disease,  conflict  and  instability.

This focus on international development as a means for protecting and enforcing ‘our’ interests has been an increasingly dominant feature under the direction of the latest Minister for International Development, Priti Patel, who has even suggested UK aid should be used to help secure post-Brexit trade deals. So this naked self-interest is not surprising, even if it is disappointing that it is framed in such a way in the manifesto.

Whilst the Lib Dems and Labour focus on human rights and internationalist values (to a greater or lesser degree), the Conservatives also write about the importance of extending “around the world those values that we believe to be right.” Those values?

“The United Kingdom will be a champion for an open economy, free trade, and the free flow of investment, ideas and information.”


“We will continue to promote democracy, the rule of law, property entitlements, a free and open media, and accountable institutions in countries and societies across the world.” [my emphasis]

In other words, the steady shift in the framing of DFID’s mission towards building up the private sector, encouraging and helping create conditions for foreign direct investment, and seeing job creation and economic growth as the solution for poverty, will continue under a Conservative government.

And now the sting in the tail. And this should be deeply worrying to anyone involved in or who cares about international development and poverty reduction, not least because it is extremely likely that May will be returned to Number 10 on June 8th. Hidden amongst all the nice pledges to end the subjugation and mutilation of women, end slavery, eradicate child poverty etc, is a more troubling pledge:

“We do not believe that international definitions of development  assistance  always  help  in  determining  how  money  should  be  spent,  on  whom and for what purpose.  So we will work with like-minded countries to change the rules so that they are updated and better reflect the breadth of our assistance around the world. If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 per cent target.”

What is going on here? Aid (or official development assistance, to give its proper title) as we know is defined as funds which are provided to promote economic development and welfare, which is concessional, and has a grant element of at least 25%. But importantly there are other restrictions on what can, or more importantly cannot, be counted as aid. Governments can claim as aid the costs of military delivery of humanitarian aid. But:

  • The costs of military equipment or services are not counted as aid
  • Anti-terrorism activities do not count as aid
  • Peacekeeping expenditures are mostly excluded from consideration as aid
  • Cultural activities count if they are aimed at building cultural capacity of recipient countries, but not if they are one-off tours by donor country artists, sportspeople, musicians, etc.

One has to assume that the Conservatives are not worried about whether they can send Ed Sheeran on a global tour, or the triumphant Bournemouth football team (finished 9th, you know) to play East Africa’s finest teams, and have it count towards the 0.7%. This is about the use of aid by and through the military.

The Conservatives are desperate to be able to build military spending in some capacity into official aid spending. This not only relaxes pressure on budgets (by transferring some of the commitment to 0.7% to the military, and meet the increased spending commitments it has promised on defence through a reallocation of funds rather than finding new resources); it would also further cement the idea that international aid is part of the UK’s toolkit for working towards UK national strategic interests, by more closely linking military strategic interests with those of UK-supported international development.

They are not alone in this ambition. The US would also like to see a relaxation of the rules to allow military spending to count. It’s worth noting that this would be a spectacularly bad idea. There is a reason there is a (now threatened) consensus on the role of the military in aid. The securitisation of aid over the past couple of decades has already served to weaken the previously harder division between humanitarian and military intervention sectors, with poor consequences for the safety of both humanitarian actors and civilians with whom they are working, and making conflicts more intractable through their internationalisation and embedding in outside interests. A full-out assault on what remains of the barrier would undermine the central defining feature of aid: that it is for economic development and welfare in recipient countries.

So, given a likely Tory victory, this is going to be a key battleground for those who care about international aid, not as a means for narrow national self-interest, but as an idea that is greater, wider, more encompassing and internationalist than the Conservative vision. I started off by suggesting that the manifestos reflected differences of tone more than of policy. But here is a major policy difference, and one that, if enacted, could destroy the idea of aid as we know it. So, my pessimism over the likely outcome notwithstanding, here’s yet another reason to go out and vote on June 8th.

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It’s Comic Relief Day, so why am I not laughing?

So it’s Comic Relief day here in the UK, the biennial mixture of fun, sentimentality and seriousness as the nation’s comedians attempt to make as open our wallets in response to laughter and tears. Celebrities will undertake ‘challenges’ to bring home to us what poverty looks and feels like. Across the nation’s offices, schools and institutions, people will be doing funny* things for charity. Serious  politicians and other national figures will make fools of themselves for a good cause.

And the money will start rolling in. Comic Relief started as one of the responses to the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s, alongside Band Aid and Live Aid. It was founded by Lenny Henry and Richard Curtis back in 1985, though the first Comic Relief Day (and the big TV show) was in 1988, raising around £15 million that night. The last extravaganza (2015) raised over £78 million, taking the total amount raised during the lifetime of Comic Relief to over £1 billion.

Comic Relief is, then, huge in terms of the money it raises, and the influence it has had in shaping people’s awareness and understanding of problems of poverty across the world. So why does it make me feel like the miserable sod standing in the corner as everyone else has fun, fun, fun? Like the Grinch out to ruin other people’s joy in doing good whilst having a good time?

Partly it is the mawkishness of the actual TV event. I find the contrasts to be jarring: between the comedy; and the serious piece set in a refugee camp or slum, a celebrity surrounded by children, probably crying; the bit that shows how even in adversity people living in poverty can find laughter; and the other bit that tells us what we can learn from them (this isn’t just a one way street you know).

But a dislike of the format isn’t my real objection. It’s not even the fact that underpinning the whole event is the idea that the real reason we should pay attention and care is because a celebrity is telling us to. There is no point in bemoaning the fact that people pay more attention to issues when celebrities front campaigns: it’s not new, nor is it especially surprising (was there someone like me moaning about poets Coleridge and Shelley being poster-children for the sugar boycott in the 1790s as part of the protest against slavery?).

My problem is with the presentation of poverty that events such Comic Relief perpetuate. The narrative of poverty is presented in a simplified way – as it should be. Trying to engage public understanding needs that message to be relatable and understandable. But simple is not the same as simplistic. Comic Relief (and other similar events) reinforce the idea that poverty is a technical issue: send more money, build more water pipes, send more children to school, and problems are solved.

What is almost completely absent is the politics of poverty. But if we want to understand why poverty exists in the places that it does, amongst particular communities rather than others, and why it is so difficult for the poor to extricate themselves from those conditions, we need to confront the politics underlying the causes and consequences of that poverty. We need to ask how the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives in what we buy, what we do and how we do it, are part of the problem. The failure of leading powers to move on climate change is condemning hundreds of millions to an ever-increasing precarious existence. The result of the cultural war on issues such as abortion in the US will cost millions of lives across Africa. Donor-pushed policies on governance reforms, health reforms, etc leave welfare services scarred and unable to meet demands. Decisions on tariffs, protectionist barriers, global tax regimes deny governments in the global South of the resources they need to develop, leaving them reliant on aid (increasingly presented as the benign charity of the global north).

Where politics does appear, it is presented as a problem within the affected countries. Expect lots on corruption tonight, but a lot less on the complicity of UK-based financial institutions in facilitating corruption. Expect even less of a debate as to whether corruption is necessarily bad for development (ie to foster development do you need to tackle corruption; or is corruption reduced as countries develop economically and socially). How much mention of the growing strength of democracy in Africa will there be? Or acknowledgement that, where some presidents have changed constitutions in order to stay in power, this is often with the complicit sanction of rich world governments who see their own strategic interests as best being protected by these rulers?

There are also problems with the perceptions of Africa that are created through such events. In the eyes of many British people, Africa is synonymous with poverty, violence and despair (for a great article on the ways in which anti-poverty campaigns can serve to associate entire regions with poverty, see Graham Harrison’s article, ‘The Africanization of poverty: A retrospective on ‘Make poverty history’ in African Affairs). Comic Relief is not alone in perpetuating these narratives, but it has played an important role. For many people, Africa is a place of dictatorships, corruption, poverty, and violence. Africa will be talked about in undifferentiated ways. And Africans are often presented as the subjects of our generosity and charity, rather than equal partners. How many African voices will we hear tonight, unmediated by a British celebrity? Precious few. And this absence, this silence, will continue to perpetrate ideas about lack of African agency, passivity and reliance on the action of others for their own betterment.

The cause is certainly good. There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of raising money for decent projects that help people to improve their lives and the resources and services to which they have access. The execution may not be my cup of tea, but then it’s not really designed for people whose day-to-day job is grappling with ideas and issues around development. There is nothing wrong with trying to convey challenges, issues and opportunities in simple ways. But there is something wrong with a simplistic message that seeks to write the politics of poverty out of the story; that seeks to avoid blaming us in the rich world for policies and decisions that harm the most vulnerable and marginalised elsewhere; and that yet again ensures the voices speaking out on the experience and consequences of poverty are those of privilege rather than those actually living the lives being described on their behalf, experiencing directly what it means to poor in a thoroughly globally unequal world.

Enjoy it, laugh at the funny bits, send some money. I may not be watching, but I’ll be making my donation. But don’t think money or empathy alone will help. Development is political, and any response  to development and poverty that isn’t political only ensures we will still be having these telethons in 30, 40 and 50 years time. And to think that audiences won’t respond to a more political understanding is to patronise those viewers, almost as much as many Africans (and those from other regions) will feel at the way they will have been represented.

* Some of these will not be funny, especially those that openly describe themselves as ‘wacky’.

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