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On coming to power in 2019, Boris Johnson promised both the Conservative party and the country as a whole that his vision would ensure a ‘global Britain’. It drew on the rhetoric that has kept Johnson relevant over the course of his complex political career. Some would call it nativist. Others might call it patriotism. Many would term it delusion. The issue is not that a global Britain is unachievable, but simply that a Johnson-led government has no hope of making it a reality.
It is, from a practical standpoint, diametrically opposed to how this government has been conducting its business. In the wake of the damaging and destabilising activity of this government to date, ambition for Britain has had to come second to survival. Every day, Johnson’s efforts to fulfil his Trumpian promise to ensure that ours is ‘the greatest country on earth’, bringing us closer to being a ‘Little England’.
At a time where aid is often essential to maintain relations, reducing it in this way is hardly conducive to constructing a world power.
The decision by the UK government to cut our commitment to foreign aid is not only callous, but also counter-productive. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and many countries facing extreme economic uncertainty, such a move paints the picture of a backwater Britain, unworthy of a seat at the table. The Treasury are being careful to frame the reduction from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income committed to foreign aid only in reference to spending next year.
But as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab pointed out, abandoning a previous legal commitment will require a change in legislation. This has led to fears that cuts could be permanent, or even that aid may be scrapped altogether. This would hardly be in line with Raab’s promise that the UK would continue to be a ‘leading country on aid’.
The reason why this move is so damaging for the prospects of a global Britain is because it suggests to the world that we are no longer interested or able to play our part in geopolitics. At a time where aid is often essential to maintain relations, reducing it in this way is hardly conducive to constructing a world power. This comes from a government which had already found itself the subject of harsh criticism over the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office earlier this year.
That decision, much like this one, betrayed the lack of recognition from our current government of the paramount importance of development internationally. Much to the chagrin of some of Johnson’s less savoury supporters, Britain is no longer an Empire. In a post-Suez world, our influence in global affairs can only come from our commitment to effective development. Either through incompetence or willful ignorance (quite possibly both), our government is going against this fundamental truth to pursue its political agenda.
In a post-Brexit world, it is hard to see where Britain will be able to carve out a heightened (or even equal) level of global influence.
Of course, it is always important to qualify a discussion like this by pointing out that development aid as a concept is not ideological flawless. Indeed, too often in both the past and present we have seen aid payments made in bad faith, a thinly-veiled attempt to purchase influence. The relationships this system creates can look disturbingly like colonial dependence, especially in nations that formally found themselves subjects of empire. To such nations, this system of forced subservience is rightly intolerable.
There is also, as Kingsley Moghalu points out in his brilliant book Emerging Africa, the issue of development aid being designed to meet the wants of the donor rather than the needs of the recipient. However, these concerns shouldn’t mean we abandon development aid altogether. Through reviewing the key questions, such as to whom donors should make out the cheque, we can re-shape the paradigm.
Initiatives like that of Opportunity International, which provides low-interest microfinancing for entrepreneurs in less developed countries, for example, can make a real difference. Development aid can overwhelmingly be a force for good. Ironically, one of the best examples of this principle being put into practice was under the now-defunct UK Department for International Development.
In a post-Brexit world, it is hard to see where Britain will be able to carve out a heightened (or even equal) level of global influence. Free trade fever dreams aside, the only option is through close relationships with the actual superpowers: the US, China and the EU. Following the election of Joe Biden, the tough stance approach this government has taken on China and the botching of negotiations with the EU, this country already has a dangerous deficit of goodwill with all three.
Scaling back significantly on foreign aid when China, the EU and a Biden-led US are likely to be increasing their own efforts risks relegating us to irrelevance. Why should any of them spare a thought for Britain, when we are not willing to do our part in tackling the key challenges for the international community across the world. Unless it takes international development seriously, Britain cannot hope to be a global player.
Without the substance to back it up, Johnson’s talk of a ‘problem-solving and burden-sharing’ UK can only ever be hollow. Even scaling back from the 0.7% commitment would mean failing to meet the UN target for all developed countries, showing Britain to be impotent and unreliable on the international stage.
Even an economic justification for the measure cannot stand up to significant scrutiny. The spending-cut comes at the same time as a promise of a significant increase to defence spending, up to £16.5 billion over the next four years according to the prime minister. Johnson has tied the move to extending British influence, but in the post-Iraq world, where we know regime change and nation-building are destabilising and counterproductive, it is difficult to see how.
More money for the defence sector may well have positive consequences, but whatever Johnson says it is a poor substitute for a solid commitment to development aid. The challenges we all face require international consensus and cooperation. Britain has a lot to contribute to this work, but if our government continues down its current path, they will be cheating both this country and the international community. The only consensus this will build is in setting an example to the rest of the world of exactly what not to do.
Image credit: Robert Bye