When I heard UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom’s “bongo bongo” comment, I couldn’t let it be laughed off as another ‘silly’ comment from a party which we allow to spout inflammatory, not to mention racist, rhetoric. Not only was it a misleading argument about where foreign aid is spent but it also encouraged the kind of derogatory perception of Africans that first allowed for the ransacking of their country through imperialism.
That we gained hugely from colonialism and have a responsibility, as civilised human beings, to give something back is an argument I strongly believe in. Unfortunately, others find it unconvincing. It seems that UKIP members generally lack any form of compassion for people who aren’t pure-blooded Brits, so I shall also explain how giving foreign aid benefits the UK too.
Firstly, was the phrase “bongo bongo land” insensitive? The Um-Bongo advert where animals are dancing around saying “um bongo, um bongo, they drink it in the Congo” is fun; it associates Africa with positive things like juice and music, not suckling from the teat of its donors and playing home to money-wasting savages. “Bongo bongo land” depicts the latter; it reduces an entire continent of at least 55 states to a vague, uncivilised jungle-land, of the kind Conrad portrays in ‘Heart of Darkness’ (published 1889). Many people I speak to still think Africa is one country, which demonstrates the lack of understanding people bother to acquire about this beautiful area, home to its own governments, policies and budgets, just like us. The reaction to the recent Zimbabwe elections frustrated me because of people’s out-dated and essentialist views. “Look,” they pointed at TV screens and newspapers, “Africans can’t do democracy. Even if their elections weren’t rigged, they would still vote for a dictator because they are tribal people who like to blindly follow a leader.”
I cannot deny that there is corruption in parts of Africa (exemplified through Mugabe), which makes the giving of foreign aid very difficult. Some leaders (like President Mobutu in Congo) have tyrannised their people and sapped their country’s resources for their own profit. Yet we supported Mobutu during the Cold War; Britain and the USA, just like the Soviet Union, financially and militarily propped up tyrannical rulers so that they had ‘allies’ in the Third World. We provided the weapons and ammunition to Congo, lying abandoned in warehouses after the Cold War, which are now in the hands of M23 rebels who terrorise the Eastern provinces and keep the region in a dangerous state of instability. The weapons from our intervention in Libya in 2011, where we deposed a leader that we did not like, filtered South to the Islamist Tuareg rebels in Mali who then began an offensive to depose their government just last year. We need to understand that all of this conflict has a long and complicated past, in which we are embroiled at every step: to dismiss all Africans as ‘inherently’ violent, tribal or incapable of achieving stability is not only ignorant of their culture but also of our own country’s history. We cannot, as UKIP would hope, view the UK as a vacuum.
Foreign aid is spent supporting the protection of human rights, providing innocent people with food and education so that they have the energy and resources to help their own country become stronger. It supports civil society, political parties, free and fair elections, so that the seeds of democracy can be planted and grown gradually. This is not a pile of Lefty idealism, pissing money up the wall, as UKIP might have you believe; the Tory-led coalition government’s decision to ring-fence the foreign aid budget in 2010 shows that the need to invest in the developing world is a valuable policy for any government in the modern world.
Giving foreign aid benefits the UK for several reasons: firstly, if we don’t help the Third World, other countries will. China, our economic super-competitor, is currently embarking on projects in Africa to build roads and help infrastructure so that this developing continent can become a viable trading partner and so that China can better access the much-needed resources which Africa possesses. If we stand back now, we will lose out in the future. Secondly, terrorists are borne from areas where instability rages (Somalia fast becoming a new example); failing to invest in their children will lead to further security threats in the future.
Finally, foreign aid could help address the very issue which UKIP cares about the most: immigration. Pretending the UK exists in its own bubble, locking down our borders and only looking inward will not help. Investing in developing countries and helping to improve their economies will prevent many people from wanting to live in the UK, where they believe they will have a better quality of life. People often shy away from the issue of foreign aid because they think it is purely given out of guilt, with no real gain to anyone because of corruption: this is simply a lie which Bloom and his colleagues should be prevented from spreading. Referring to “bongo bongo land” is unacceptable; this is 2013. The people in our ex-colonies are just as intelligent, creative and capable as we are and Bloom would do well to learn a thing or two from them.