Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How can one be so heartless?

How can one be so heartless as not to laugh when yet another Conservative Minister pronounces stupid things? This time, it is Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield and Secretary of State for Foreign Aid International Development. Now there is a job we could so easily do without.

Some time in 2004 when Mr Mitchell became Shadow Secretary of State for International Development I went to a talk he gave, which was moderately interesting. He seemed to think at the time that the way forward for developing countries, particularly in Africa, was through trade and one can hardly argue with that. I do not recall him making any but the vaguest suggestions about changing various problems around the Common Agricultural and the Common Fisheries Policies; in fact I do not recall him even mentioning those noxious structures. His most important contribution was the need for African countries to lower trade barriers and for trade between those countries to develop. This, again, is not something anyone can argue with, though there are reasons for those trade barriers and import tariffs being so high, an obvious one being that import taxes are easy to collect in countries where the tax base is low and money received by the government through aid means no need is felt to rectify the position.

The main problem with that idea was that Mr Mitchell seemed to be under the impression that Britain could somehow impose this policy on African countries and to create a Pan-African Trade Area. (I did write about the meeting at the time on my previous bloghome.)

Mr Mitchell was not challenged much, partly because there seemed no possibility at the time of him putting any of his ideas into place for some length of time and partly because most people thought it was great advance to have a man in that position who seemed to understand the importance of trade in development.

That did not last long. As we can see here he was instrumental in setting up those ludicrous trips by various Conservative politicians and activists to Rwanda to do various bits of work such as construction. At the time a number of people pointed out that, perhaps, they should have sent qualified managers and engineers and hired local labour to do the work, thus strengthening economic development. (Yes, as a matter of fact, I wrote about it at the time, as well.)

Then he became involved in the row about the BBC Gaza Appeal and seems to have forgotten all he ever knew about trade being a better way of developing than aid. Now he is Secretary of State for Foreign Aid International Development and is responsible for such brilliant ideas as "a guarantee that British legislation will be amended to ensure that Britain's aid contributions will be maintained at 0.7% of UK GNI (Gross National Income) by 2013".

Among other places aid goes to countries like India, Pakistan and China who manage to maintain large armies, nuclear weapons and develop space programmes. It also goes to countries whose kleptocratic rulers never need to look to their own population for money or support. And, of course, there is the problem - indeed, it seems to be the only problem for some people - that with those threatened cuts in the public sector, handing money over to other countries is a tad illogical. We are back to Peter Bauer's comment (which, apparently, he could not recall making) about the poor of the rich countries subsidizing the rich of the poor countries.

Mr Mitchell is now in hot water for a particularly fatuous comment. It seems that far from complaining about the idea of sending tax money to countries like India or, for that matter, Uganda, we should be proud of our non-achievements - we can become an "aid superpower" and what more could one ask from life.

Not everybody is happy with this notion and some are very unhappy with the suggestion that the corrupt, disruptive and counter productive aid programme that has managed to keep African countries in poverty and helped to line pockets there and in India and Pakistan (to name just two) is something to be as proud of as we are (mostly justifiably) proud of our armed forces.
Tory MP Peter Bone said: ‘The idea that we are going to be a world superpower in overseas aid – I have no idea what that means. It is the sort of complete tosh you would expect from a Labour minister.

‘The Coalition Government is losing the plot over this – they are totally out of step with the public mood.

‘It is all very well talking about the pride we have in our Armed Forces, but the fact is we are increasing foreign aid by £4billion at a time when our Armed Forces are being dramatically cut.

‘The priorities are all wrong – that money should be going to our Armed Forces, because they are the best at doing overseas aid.’

Fellow Tory Philip Davies accused Mr Mitchell of presiding over a ‘vanity project’.
He added: ‘We shouldn’t be judging our effectiveness by the amount of money we are spending – that is a socialist way of looking at things.
Those are surprisingly sensible comments, given that they come from Tory MPs. I particularly like the one about not judging effectiveness by the amount of money we spend. Indeed, it is a socialist way of looking at things but then, that is precisely what we can expect from both sections of the Cleggeron Coalition.

What I find very disappointing (well, more annoying than disappointing as I expected nothing else) is the reluctance to broach the whole subject of whether foreign aid is a good idea from anybody's point of view. Indeed, on a number of forums I saw the inevitable comments from those who criticized Mr Mitchell about not minding foreign aid if it was properly accounted for; about the most important point being that we are cutting back, allegedly, on other spending as if it would be perfectly acceptable to send those vast sums to corrupt leaders if we were not; and, inevitably, the faux-heart-rending sob about how cruel we are not wanting to help poor people in need.

As ever, nothing will be done beyond a little tinkering at the edges, until the issue is faced properly. May I suggest a course of reading by various African writers and analysts, such as those published on African Liberty or Imanighana? Something might filter through.


  1. I totally agree with your comments on foreign aid. As far as the armed forces are concerned, we should either equip them properly for the tasks we give them, e.g Iraq, Afganistan and Libya, or as many believe, bring them home and stop pretending we are a superpower.

  2. First of all, we need to decide what we need armed forces for. That means deciding or, at least, discussing foreign policy. What is it? Do we have one? What is Britain's position in the world? But, of course, that would mean raising the E word. So our government flails around.