Access the Samosa archives
UK aid to South Africa

May 6 2013




I’ve worked for a development secretary so I can imagine the Whitehall conversation. The secretary of state (Justine Greening) has a long-standing speaking engagement at The TimesCEO Summit Africa, two days before local elections across the country. Her speech needs a story. She needs to say something about A) Africa B) Trade C) something that will play well with the electorate in election week.

DFID is currently in ‘exit talks’ with every country that is on the road to middle income status, and South Africa has been a middle income country for a while. So I can imagine DFID’s Africa Division suggesting the announcement and everyone from the press office, to the speechwriter to the No10 strategic comms unit, all being keen on the idea.

And to be fair, the exclusive trail of the announcement with The Times looked OK. But the ‘day two’ splash in The Times reflected the unravelling. In South Africa, the government’s spokesman declared the UK’s decision as a “unilateral” one. In DFID’s enthusiasm to get a good headline, they look like they might have jumped the gun.The British foreign secretary, no less, was forced to take to the airwaves to explain away a “bureaucratic confusion”, carefully avoiding the phrase “diplomatic” so as not to expose the FCO to the mess that DFID had caused. But could it be that the FCO had led DFID to believe that they had squared the announcement with the South Africans?

The two departments have a long and honorable mistrust of each other that could well have contributed. Like most things in Whitehall, the timing was a probably a cock-up, rather than a conspiracy.

‘Running away’ from middle income countries

If that is the Kremlinology, now to the substance. UK NGOs, led by ActionAid, questioned whether DFID has a new strategy of “running away” from middle income countries as quick as they possibly can. If they do, it can only be to appease a domestic political constituency.ActionAid rightly explain the implication of this approach: now that most people living in poverty no longer live in poor countries, DIFD’s central ‘global poverty reduction’ mission would be fundamentally undermined.

Elsewhere, South African hero Peter Hain pointed out the persistent problems of unemployment and child poverty that stain the soul of post-apartheid South Africa. But given the UK government’s attitude towards rising unemployment and child poverty at home, can we really expect them to be interested in it abroad?

In South Africa, the row has not had anything like as much media coverage as in the UK. The initial government statement was covered by all the papers, but via news agencies. As Wednesday was a public holiday for international workers’ day, broadcasters picked up the story via London and it topped TV and radio news bulletins. Today, one of the letters page carry criticism of the ANC for the way they have handled the affair. Online, there have been far more intelligent attempts to contextualise both the announcement and the row.

The case for progressive internationalism

For my mind, this singular decision is less important than two far wider contexts. The first, is in South Africa itself. In a country where the governing party still polls 65 per cent after two decades in power, there is a need to support civil society. DFID’s country plan shows that just £1.9m of the £19m programme is spent on ‘governance’, exactly 10 per cent. That’s the minimum level set by the Development Secretary I worked for at DFID. So while the South African government can fund its own health service, it will not fund civic voices, advocates of transparency and groups campaigning for accountability.

The second, is the global context. With David Cameron co-charing the High Level Panel on replacing the Millennium Development Goals, the fear is that he steers the conversation away from inequalityjobs and Decent Work and towards country level national GDP growth. Things have moved on since the days of Make Poverty History: now, most of the global poor no longer live in poor countries, they live in middle income countries.

No one wants Britain to adopt a neo-colonial approach but if you care about what goes on within developing countries you need to more than just ask their government’s to do the right thing. The case for progressive internationalism is as strong as ever, but for us to have purchase on the issue of global poverty, Britain needs a presence in these countries beyond our Embassies or High Commissions. DFID’s work work is not yet done because DFID was created to help poop people, not poor governments.

Originally published by Left Foot Forward 

Leave a Comment

Comments are closed.