Photo: A Globe from Mark Doliner flickr photo stream

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a billion-pound cut from the UK’s foreign aid budget in his new spending review, reducing aid down from 0.7% to 0.5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The move is justified as a COVID-19-related shrinkage of the economy’s size, as stated by a government spokesperson: “What we are doing is looking at how the aid is spent to ensure that it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money”. The rationale for cuts to aid is presented as reducing national debts and easing national economic pressures. This has been sharply criticized by both conservative and liberal politicians and an overwhelming part of the NGO sector, with warnings of unprecedented disasters and call for broad coalitions by international organizations such as the World Bank, the UN’s food agency and the UN’s children’s agency.  Simultaneously, a £16.5-billion boost has been announced to the UK’s defence budget, which will allow investment in new military technology. A critical reading of the history of international aid shows its relationship with the global North’s diplomatic and military interests, including medical interests.

UK development aid priorities are said to be “Covid health requirements, girls’ education, climate change and biodiversity, the “bottom billion” poorest people and defending open societies, human rights and ‘force-for-good’ programming”. Nevertheless, at the moment the progressive aims of aid, including the soft power of intervening in the global South, are being deprioritized compared with nationally-focused priorities. So is this a sign of the re-nationalizing effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic?

In a speech justifying the spending review, Sunak touches upon one of the specific challenges of a pandemic – as opposed to other recent epidemics such as the SARS and EBOLA – COVID-19 has a truly global reach. How might this impact the structure of aid policies? A paper just out by Kobayashi and colleagues suggests that the pandemic is a troubling public health crisis for developing countries and a crisis in aid donation. Arguing that the foreign aid policies in liberal democracies are ultimately determined by public support, Kobayashi et al. have studied attitudes towards development aid among US residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. They suggest that as concerns for the national economy increases, support for overseas financial aid decreases, a view that also resonates in Sunak’s defence of the budget, in which he emphasizes the impossibility of justifying the 0.7% commitment to the British people amidst a “fiscal domestic emergency”. However, in Kobayashi and colleagues’ study, concern for one’s personal financial situation had no significant impact on respondents’ attitudes towards foreign aid, a finding which contradicts previous research.

In light of these results, the authors discern a viable communication strategy for governments wishing to maintain or increase their aid engagements. They indicate that the “targeted development” rationale increasingly adopted by donor countries is the most efficient way to increase support for foreign aid. Targeted development, which, in this case, would mean providing aid to poorer countries to reduce the force of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the US during the fall of 2020, significantly increased support for foreign aid among their research respondents. On the other hand, a focus on the vulnerability and suffering of foreign populations showed no statistical effect in terms of changing attitudes towards foreign aid. Victoria Honeyman, a political scientist, concludes her critique of the aid cut by positing the British economy’s potentially detrimental effects as the ultimate reason for maintaining Foreign Development Aid (FDA). While reducing the suffering and death of people in the global South would be seen as worthy of aid, regardless of how their lives affect our own, the targeted development rationale is a strategically savvy move to support foreign aid levels.

The COVID-19 landscape presents several urgent questions. Kobayashi and colleagues predict that the increasing awareness of global connectivity in health matters works in favour of increased aid:

“…if support for aid increases due to people’s appreciation of what aid does for their country, the government may allocate more of its aid to health-related projects and countries that are more connected to the country (e.g. those that are geographically close, trade more).”

Such considerations are, however, likely to reinforce already existing patterns of power. First, the idea of connected[ness] in itself begs the question: geographical connectedness or connectedness through re-configured geo-political circuits of colonial power asymmetries? The “modern aid industry” is a descendant of European Empire and reflects an imperial logic by placing Western interests above the ‘Rest’ while the “career trajectory of many international aid workers often resembles that of colonial administrators”.

Development aid builds on colonialist and imperialist assumptions in the sense that it shores up Western privilege and western proprietorship on development (where, how and how much should be given): a kind of epistemological racism that undervalues non-western subjects and also continues to mortgage their lives. Second, the UN calls for international solidarity, urging leading economies to offer financial and technical support to less industrialized nations and to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. In particular, sustainable development goals (SDGs) such as eradicating poverty and hunger, promoting good health, quality education, and gender equality have been brought centre stage. While some of these goals have also been highlighted in the discussion on targeted development, the conditionality of aid allocation takes the focus away from and dampens down SDGs’ effectiveness.

Though the virus is indiscriminate about whom it attacks, it nonetheless heightens inequalities through geographical and social location – where/how you are placed. Third, statistics show that countries with an individualistic approach have been worst hit (UK, US) with covid-19 mortality and morbidity. Yet the aid rhetoric reinstates the individualistic framework. So no lessons have been learnt! The politics of development should match the crisis of current times: we only emerge from the pandemic, if it is tackled across the world. Thus, it is time that we re-evaluate our priorities to leave national self-interests behind in favour of global solidarity.

About the authors: Johanna Gondouin is Research Fellow in Gender Studies at the Department of Thematic Studies, Linköping University. Suruchi Thapar-Björkert is Docent and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Government, University of Uppsala.