One of the more bizarre mysteries of contemporary British politics is the ironclad, almost fanatical intensity of the government’s commitment to foreign aid spending and the activities of DFID, the Department for International Development.

It is bizarre because the Prime Minister talks about foreign aid as if it’s all about famine relief and saving children’s lives. But he and his Cabinet are intelligent, worldly people and they know that the real world of aid rarely resembles the one celebrated in DFID pamphlets and Oxfam ads. They know that most aid is ‘development aid’ intended not to help in emergencies, but to foster prosperity.

They also know that this development aid is at best useless and at worst counterproductive. A quarter of Britain’s foreign aid goes as ‘budget support’ into the treasuries of some of the world’s least competent, honest or responsible governments. Even more goes to multilateral institutions, like the World Bank or the EU aid body that Clare Short described as ‘an outrage’, ‘a disgrace’ and ‘the worst development agency in the world’.

After 60 years and $3 trillion of development aid, with one big push following another and wave after wave of theories and jargon, there is depressingly little evidence that official development aid has any significant benign effect on third-world poverty. The Tories know this. They’ve read William Easterly and Robert Calderisi, who argue that the cash we dole out has enriched privileged Westerners and kleptocratic third-world rulers more than its intended beneficiaries. Moreover, they’ve seen how South Korea and Taiwan have risen from poverty to prosperity and they know how small a role foreign aid played. So why do they still insist on this enormous, ‘ring-fenced’ aid budget?

Some suggest it’s about being nice (however ineffectually) to our less fortunate neighbours; showing them we’re not racist. But being admirably attuned to matters of race and prejudice, Cameron and his crew must have noticed that the fiercest defenders of aid are invariably white, and the most trenchant critics tend to be African intellectuals like Ghana’s George Ayittey and Uganda’s Andrew Mwenda. Some of them who have been in the field will have seen for themselves how aid activity of both kinds — development and emergency — all too often replicates much that was bad about 19th-century missionary activity and imperialism, and even with the best intentions tends to patronise its beneficiaries and undermine good government.

They must also be aware that DFID’s claims to be able to monitor corruption and waste are largely PR flimflam. After all, the House of Commons public accounts committee has told them so. Its chair, Margaret Hodge, has lamented DFID’s inadequate bookkeeping, and ‘poor understanding of levels of fraud and corruption’.

So what is it really about?

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One explanation is of course self-interest. To be seen to ‘care’ about the world’s poor is, say some, a way of appealing to swing voters and ‘detoxifying the Tory brand’. This would arguably make the government’s insistence on increasing foreign aid (while cutting almost everything else) one of the most expensive PR exercises in history. But while there is bound to be some truth in the theory, it fails to explain why the Cameroons have stuck to the commitment even though polls show it is not popular. Today, given the UK’s financial travails, almost anyone who is not in the aid industry would forgive and understand a U-turn on foreign aid targets. But the Prime Minister has set his face like flint against any reduction.

Like so many things in Britain, the new Tory obsession with aid may come down to class and religion.

It is a matter of religion partly because so much aid is faith-based, by which I mean that those who fund it and carry it out have little or no real evidence that it works, but they take a leap of faith that it does. It is also faith-based in the sense that foreign aid has become one of those substitute religions so often adopted by middle-class, educated people who look down on organised religion of all kinds. Like other pseudo-religions, aid has its owns myths, iconography, priesthoods; its state and private elements; its conflicts between fundamentalists and moderates; its guardians of purity, its true believers and cynical hucksters, its genuine saints and its ruthless bureaucrats. And it offers believers an almost spiritual sense of their own goodness — which goes some way towards explaining their extreme reluctance to listen to the evidence against it.

As to class, foreign aid is a comparatively middle- and upper-class business and a middle- and upper-class enthusiasm. It starts with a gap year to exciting places like Nairobi or New Delhi, being driven around in Land Cruisers and lecturing adults on how to run their countries. To some, aid work is attractive because of the adventure and the thrill of danger. To others, the lure is endless gap-year exoticism and third-world partying (with the additional benefit of being one of the good guys). You can earn a decent, high-status living in the aid world, without soiling your hands in trade or industry.

Clare Lockhart, author of Fixing Failed States, likens the aid world to the Victorian church, which offered employment and status to the second sons of the landed gentry. And certainly, if you visit the bars and clubs frequented by aid workers in many parts of the third world, you could be forgiven for seeing the aid business as a sort of white-knuckle dating agency for middle-class Westerners. For the more academic, it’s also a ticket to the lucrative five-star conference circuit.

It is probably unfair to suggest that class solidarity is a conscious reason for the Cameron government’s attachment to aid. But class attitudes and sympathies have a subconscious effect. The Notting Hill elite is more likely to encounter or engage with poor Africans or Asians (on their holidays, or working trips abroad) than to encounter rock-bottom life at home. They’re more likely to have visited Kenya than Rochdale. And if the actions (rather than the words) of the Cameron government are anything to go by, they find it harder to empathise with a working-class squaddie in a wheelchair than with a hungry African family. Their gap years prepare them for philanthropy in foreign parts, but not to confront life in a British sink estate.

This is not a new thing in our culture. Dickens mocked it brilliantly in the character of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House. But Mrs Jellyby didn’t run the country. In a modern democratic nation state we rightly expect our rulers to put the citizenry first, especially those in greatest need — not to prioritise humanity in general. This is particularly relevant if they know, and they do know, that the money they pour into foreign countries is all too often wasted or stolen. Even the most devoted Cameroonian must have blushed when the Prime Minister and his former development secretary Andrew Mitchell claimed that foreign aid had the ancillary benefits of preventing war and illegal immigration. Given what we know now about the ways in which both development and emergency aid have subsidised warlords and sponsored bloody conflicts in places like Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, it was something of a sick joke.

I don’t necessarily think that Britain should not engage in foreign aid at all, just that our leaders have a duty to the people who pay for it and the people in whose name they serve to spend the money well.

Here are some questions that I’d like the PM to ponder in this new year. Why, for example, are we so wedded to the idea of spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid? This much trumpeted target causes no end of trouble — it’s tricky to get rid of that much cash — and it’s not derived from any empirical analysis about what poor countries need or what development can achieve. It’s the product of rich-country grandstanding and activist marketing, just like the Millennium Development Goals. It has its origin in a 1950s suggestion by the World Council of Churches that rich countries tithe 1 per cent of GDP for foreign aid. The public on whom the government are imposing this burden give more to charity than the citizens of any other G8 country except the United States.

That same public has a right to expect that aid policy will keep our own interests in mind. For instance, it makes sense to suggest that DFID should favour British products and that aid should be supplied in ways that benefit British foreign policy. But this tends not to be the case, because the prevailing culture in the aid community is hostile to any consideration of material benefit to the donor country. To get anything in return is, they think, to be insufficiently altruistic. What a daft way to guide policy.

The waste and corruption that goes unseen or unchallenged by DFID is a kick in the teeth both for the people at home who pay the bill and for the people aid is supposed to be helping. A genuinely compassionate policy would be ruthless and rapid in its cutting of aid to wasteful and corrupt multilateral organisations like the EU’s aid programme and to cynical and corrupt central and local governments in places like Kenya and Ethiopia. It would have long ago made coherent choices about where Britain should focus the aid it can afford. Perhaps it would make sense to focus on former colonies and other countries with historic links, or perhaps the very poorest countries (though those often have the worst governance and the worst results), or the most strategically important ones. What makes no sense at all is to spend money (as DFID does) on countries which fit into none of those categories, like Brazil and Vietnam.

In the meantime, a decent aid programme might even invest in military emergency aid capacity that could genuinely make the UK an ‘aid superpower’, to use Andrew Mitchell’s cant phrase. We could invest in the transport aircraft, ships and heavylift helicopters that are, as the 2004 tsunami showed, the ultimate ‘dual-use’ emergency aid resources.

Perhaps the ultimate demonstration that the government takes aid seriously — that it understands the difficulties of aid delivery and the moral dilemmas it entails — would be if it held an inquiry or a royal commission into how best to give effective aid. But there’s little chance of that. There is probably no corner of the British establishment as unexamined or as deserving of sceptical scrutiny as the aid sector, but our deluded or cynical leaders just don’t seem to care.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated