“Bongo-Bongo land” conjures images of European Imperialism: the barbarity of Africans compared to the civilised white man – an entirely outdated and ridiculous image. But despite his atrocious phrasing, MEP Godfrey Bloom raises an important issue that shouldn’t be ignored.
On the face of it, it seems right that richer countries should give some of their money to developing nations. But this year the budget for the Department for International Development (DFID) has risen – while the rest of government is making cuts. The rising budget of the DFID is essentially a Robin Hood tax and the public seem to agree: the latest YouGov Survey on the issue revealed that 61% think the UK’s aid budget, the second highest in the world, needs reducing or cutting entirely.
With for most things it makes sense for Whitehall to spend on your behalf, for example infrastructure projects and policing, but it doesn’t make sense for government to donate aid money to other nations on our behalf. This money has no discernible benefits to taxpayers. This is not to say that we should not give aid: giving to charity helps provide vital relief in the developing world. However, if the public purse belongs to the taxpayer and is merely under stewardship of the treasury, then the recipients and amount of financial aid should surely be decided by the public themselves.
But if developing countries are getting life-saving aid then surely the end justifies the means? Didn’t Robin Hood get it right? Last year the National Audit office revealed they have almost no knowledge of how much aid actually reaches people in need. It also admitted that as the budget increased to reach 0.7% of GNI, it would be targeted at countries with less stable and more corrupt regimes. Therefore, Bloom’s comments that money from the DFID is spent on Ray-Ban sunglasses and Pakistani fighter jets may not be wide of the mark.
For example, in the latest corruption perception index, Pakistan was ranked 139th out of a total of 174. The country has just announced a 10% increase in defence spending which a Pakistani newspaper estimates to be around £360 million. This year the UK government will give £450 million to the country. South Africa’s president Zuma, whose country scored a more impressive 69, has been accused of making improvements to his rural property, including adding a helipad, at a cost to his country of £15 million. Direct aid to South Africa currently stands at £19 million from the UK taxpayer.
Anecdotal evidence does not equate to evidence of systematic corruption, but the shocking truth is that it is the only evidence we have. Once aid leaves Whitehall, the government simply doesn’t know where the money is going. South African aid which is set to end this year, will simply be re-allocated to countries that are more unstable and corrupt because Cameron has ring-fenced the aid budget.
In a liberal democracy, especially at a time of national austerity, people should have the right to decide where their money goes. If foreign aid was cut in line with policing and healthcare, then there would be nothing to stop you from donating to responsible NGOs. But if you want to make other people donate in the form of taxes, and spend their money in any way you choose, then the traditional word for this type of activity is theft. Robin Hood might have donated his proceeds to a good cause, but it doesn’t hide the fact that he was a criminal.