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‘Bhutan’s Got Talent’ and other Conservative Policies on Development

April 8, 2010

When trying to study, I have a problem where my brain decides that it would like to read anything but the subject matter I must learn. This happened today and I stumbled across an article by Easterly ranking donor agencies on best practice where DFID came in second place. Reading this in the context of the upcoming UK elections, I couldn’t help but sit back and think about how this would change if the Conservatives were voted into power.

To understand what would be different one must recognise that the line from the Conservative party is that international development, along with health, will be the only departments to be ring-fenced, escaping any budget cuts. However when one looks at the views and opinions of those within the Conservative Party one sees a different picture – 96 per cent of Conservative candidates for the upcoming election actually want to see aid cut. Where the sounds coming from the party are so different from the views within it, how can the two sides be reconciled?

A likely answer is that aid will be used to fund the military and programmes to mitigate the effects of climate change. Of these two outcomes, the prospect of aid funding being merged with military spending has to be the most worrying.

Sadly this is a prospect that is very real; in January David Cameron announced that the Conservatives would set up a stabilisation force, where aid money would be used to fund the activities of the underfunded Ministry of Defence. This led commentators to suggest that Tory policy would merely raid the aid budget to pay for the military.

Perhaps, a symbol of the hypocritical and deceptive nature of this diversion of funds is the way it seems to sit uncomfortably with Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell. At the event when Cameron announced the militarisation of aid plans, Mitchell was absent, when asked about his absence journalists were informed he was in Birmingham, however later that day he made a speech outside Parliament. Apparently his plans changed at the last minute! Mitchell’s angry outburst at the Oxfid conference could also be understood in the same light as he snapped after a question on the subject.

In addition to the issue of the militarisation of aid, Conservative policy has also encountered criticism for what it calls ‘MyAid’, where the constituents of development projects are reduced to X-Factor style contestants, as the British public will vote for online for who they would like to see receiving funding – akin to a ‘Bhutan’s Got Talent’. While this certainly makes projects more accountable to taxpayers, surely any current problems with accountability arise from too much accountability to donors and not enough to beneficiaries.

All of these points come as no surprise when one considers the Conservative party’s history with development. When last in power the party cut Britain’s aid budget in half.

Although the party may appear to be singing a different tune now, there are many further signs that their attitudes have actually changed little. Most recently, last month a Tory backbencher objected to a private members bill to scrap ‘vulture funds’ after the Conservative party had pledged its support, blocking reform. Vulture funds are permitted under current UK law and allow investors to buy the debt of poor countries, often at a fraction of their actual value, they then try to win the money back in courts around the world – regardless of whether the country has acquired debt relief or not. Again we can see a startling difference between the Conservative commitment on paper to reducing poverty and the reality of their actions.

Thus while the Conservative Green Paper on Development seems competent and fairly well intentioned – apart from some blatant x-factor populism – the worrying issue is not what the Tories have committed to on paper, but what we can infer about their intentions. Whether indicating they would divert aid funds to the military, or shooting down legislation in Parliament that would put an end to a terribly unjust and amoral practice that preys on poor countries, Tory intentions seem to lie as far from DFID and its developing world beneficiaries as possible. Hence if we do see a Conservative DFID emerging, Easterly’s donor ranking is going to change significantly, and although DFID would fall in the ranks, the real losers would be those living in poverty who would have otherwise received assistance.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kay Lau permalink
    April 8, 2010 8:13 pm

    I think the problem might be that in a lot of people’s minds (incl. MPs) it’s not clear why this money is going to develop other countries, esp when budgets are cut elsewhere- is it humanitarianism, guilt, security etc? and it’s slightly different from NGOs in that the tax payer doesn’t have any say about whether it wants to contribute or not.

  2. Craig M permalink*
    April 8, 2010 10:17 pm

    OK, but the issue is not that people are reluctant to back aid becase they dont know where its going – aid is enough of a priority for the British public for the two main parties to ringfence the development budget and make pledges to meet the 0.7% aid target. We can debate the reasons for the enthusiasm here but it is there.

    Regarding the clarity MPs have to where aid money is spent – while this may be an issue, one must question why the lack of clarity only exists for Conservative MPs. For Labour development and aid are significant issues, we have seen the aid budget double since labour came in, and the establishment of an independent DFID under the Labour party. Not to mention the fact that the vulture fund legislation was proposed by Labour and shot down by the Conservatives.

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