Worrying signs in the Conservative international development policy

Survey evidence reveals that the British public’s support for international aid has fallen. According to the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, 63% of us want the aid budget cut, and 52% think aid is ineffective. We can surely put this down, at least to some extent, to the impact of recession and the menace of impending spending cuts. Yet the coalition government has vowed to protect the international development budget. The Conservatives made this pledge in their election campaign.

 This was part of their desire to no longer be seen as ‘the nasty party’. That is, cuddly conservatism. David Cameron’s cabinet are citizens of the world. So, does this mean that the government is going against the grain of public opinion? In a way, yes. The right-wing commentariat are certainly gunning for DFID. But the government is desperate to avoid any headlines about starving African babies, which could harm them in the long-term, even if cutting aid is popular in the short-term. The DFID budget is quite small, so it’s not like cutting it by 25% could make much difference anyway. Why take the political risk?

 However, there are worrying signs that the coalition government does have a more right-wing agenda on international development. First, leaked documents suggest up to 100 DFID programmes are for the scrapheap even though the overall aid budget is protected. DFID has scrapped its magazine ‘Developments’ which aimed to inform the British public about aid and development issues. And most importantly, leaked memos have informed us that the government plans to make some of the financial assistance DFID doles out pass through Foreign Office and National Security Council procedures to ensure aid contributes to UK security objectives.

 Even if the budget is protected, there are growing questions, therefore, about how it will be spent. This is not to say, of course, that New Labour’s policies were beyond reproach. Their aid policy was based to some extent on a vision of progressive global economic integration that has been blown to pieces by the global financial crisis. But to return now to a ‘UK-first’ aid policy would be a backward step.

Laura White is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield

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