UK aid to South Africa: cock-up, rather than conspiracy?

The case for progressive internationalism is as strong as ever, but for us to have purchase on the issue of global poverty, Britain needs a presence in these countries beyond our Embassies or High Commissions.

I’ve worked for a development secretary so I can imagine the Whitehall conversation. The secretary of state (Justine Greening) has a long-standing speaking engagement at The Times CEO Summit Africa, two days before local elections across the country. Her speech needs a story. She needs to say something about A) Africa B) Trade C) something that will play well with the electorate in election week.

DFID is currently in ‘exit talks’ with every country that is on the road to middle income status, and South Africa has been a middle income country for a while. So I can imagine DFID’s Africa Division suggesting the announcement and everyone from the press office, to the speechwriter to the No10 strategic comms unit, all being keen on the idea.

And to be fair, the exclusive trail of the announcement with The Times looked OK. But the ‘day two’ splash in The Times reflected the unravelling. In South Africa, the government’s spokesman declared the UK’s decision as a “unilateral” one. In DFID’s enthusiasm to get a good headline, they look like they might have jumped the gun.The British foreign secretary, no less, was forced to take to the airwaves to explain away a “bureaucratic confusion”, carefully avoiding the phrase “diplomatic” so as not to expose the FCO to the mess that DFID had caused. But could it be that the FCO had led DFID to believe that they had squared the announcement with the South Africans?

The two departments have a long and honorable mistrust of each other that could well have contributed. Like most things in Whitehall, the timing was a probably a cock-up, rather than a conspiracy.

‘Running away’ from middle income countries

If that is the Kremlinology, now to the substance. UK NGOs, led by ActionAid, questioned whether DFID has a new strategy of “running away” from middle income countries as quick as they possibly can. If they do, it can only be to appease a domestic political constituency. ActionAid rightly explain the implication of this approach: now that most people living in poverty no longer live in poor countries, DIFD’s central ‘global poverty reduction’ mission would be fundamentally undermined.

Elsewhere, South African hero Peter Hain pointed out the persistent problems of unemployment and child poverty that stain the soul of post-apartheid South Africa. But given the UK government’s attitude towards rising unemployment and child poverty at home, can we really expect them to be interested in it abroad?

In South Africa, the row has not had anything like as much media coverage as in the UK. The initial government statement was covered by all the papers, but via news agencies. As Wednesday was a public holiday for international workers’ day, broadcasters picked up the story via London and it topped TV and radio news bulletins. Today, one of the letters page carry criticism of the ANC for the way they have handled the affair. Online, there have been far more intelligent attempts to contextualise both the announcement and the row.

The case for progressive internationalism

For my mind, this singular decision is less important than two far wider contexts. The first, is in South Africa itself. In a country where the governing party still polls 65 per cent after two decades in power, there is a need to support civil society. DFID’s country plan shows that just £1.9m of the £19m programme is spent on ‘governance’, exactly 10 per cent. That’s the minimum level set by the Development Secretary I worked for at DFID. So while the South African government can fund its own health service, it will not fund civic voices, advocates of transparency and groups campaigning for accountability.

The second, is the global context. With David Cameron co-charing the High Level Panel on replacing the Millennium Development Goals, the fear is that he steers the conversation away from inequality, jobs and Decent Work and towards country level national GDP growth. Things have moved on since the days of Make Poverty History: now, most of the global poor no longer live in poor countries, they live in middle income countries.

No one wants Britain to adopt a neo-colonial approach but if you care about what goes on within developing countries you need to more than just ask their government’s to do the right thing. The case for progressive internationalism is as strong as ever, but for us to have purchase on the issue of global poverty, Britain needs a presence in these countries beyond our Embassies or High Commissions. DFID’s work work is not yet done because DFID was created to help poop people, not poor governments.

Richard Darlington is currently volunteering at CIVICUS in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was Special Adviser at DFID 2009-2010.

4 Responses to “UK aid to South Africa: cock-up, rather than conspiracy?”

  1. SadButMadLad

    Considering that DfID use tax payers money (yes, the money comes from tax payers not some magic money tree) to help poor people in other countries the top priority is that tax payers are happy with such an arrangement. If they are “running away” from giving out aid to “appease a domestic political constituency” then they are doing the right thing.

    By the way, appeasement means giving concessions to an enemy. That highlights that the DfID (since you were part of it and therefore part of the culture of it) sees the tax payer as the enemy rather than their master. That just shows that the DfID is run by a small group of right on lefty intellectual thinkers who think that giving aid to another country and interfering with its internal governance is the best thing to do and telling the public that they know best. That smacks to me of colonialism than neo-colonialism.

    Neo-colonialism (a bodged up lefty term to mean capitalism) is a way more democratic, efficient and proven way of bringing a country from third-world status to middle-income and beyond. Think of it in the manner of alleviating hunger. Do you give people food or do you give them seeds. Give them food, and they will be always asking for more food. Give them seeds, and they can grow their own food. The surplus which they can sell to get more seeds. They therefore become self-sufficient. Aid is like food, whilst trade is like seeds.

    So in effect lefty emotional thought (or rather lack of thought) is holding countries back as they depend on aid to keep their subsistence farms going rather than allowing trade which would enable the countries to become self sufficient and grow. The DfID should be scrapped. And just to be fair, the FCO should be scrapped as well as they are just as useless.

  2. SANewsToday

    As a citizen of South Africa and a new publisher (see http://www.southafricanewstoday.com) I welcome the UK’s questioning of aid to this country. We can’t spend the budget we have and aid is a disincentive to development.

  3. SANewsToday

    As a citizen of South Africa and a new publisher (see http://www.southafricanewstoday.com) I welcome the UK’s questioning of aid to this country. We can’t spend the budget we have and aid is a disincentive to development.

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