Brouhaha. The evil of trading “schools for soldiers”. That was Oxfam’s Max Lawson, firing a bow shot in what became a full day barrage of Downing Street and DFID. World Vision chirped in, as did Christian Aid and Save (though hard to tell which side they were on) and even small fish NGOs who usually keep their mouths shut. Seems that NGOs in the UK have found their bite now that Andrew Mitchell is no longer reminding them of whose hand does the feeding.
The cause. David Cameron’s statement that he would be “very open” to using some of DFID’s aid budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects.
The problem. Once again, and in a loud public voice the UK’s highest authority (OK, realistically DC is probably closer to sixth in terms of influence, after the Queen, Kate Middleton, Boris, Becks and Cara Delevingne, who is poised to change the shape of the British eyebrow) okayed the idea of development money sliding from DFID to fund MOD stabilization projects that deliver on the UK’s national security interests. Loud and clear for the Taleban and al Shabab: aid is for national security. Loud and clear for the communities where we work, planting that unhelpful chestnut of distrust as to NGO motivations.
What he didn’t say. He didn’t say he wanted to buy weapons with aid money, or anything close to it (transcript here). The level of hyperbole in Lawson’s “hospitals and not helicopter gunships” quip makes for great radio. It also makes for a big fat lob pass to all those ready critics of aid, defenders of Tory policy, and friends of Dave (not to mention again aid agencies apparently trying to curry favour by defending the government). Dismiss the point by making the lot of us look like self-serving nags or wrong on our facts. Even MSF over-reacted, publishing a rather straightforward statement under the screechy tag of the aid budget being “hijacked”.
What NGOs didn’t say. Our disclaimer: As a member of the aid community I hereby pledge that we aid agencies are motivated solely by the desire to defend the principle of independent aid. We stamp our collective feet and in a piercing falsetto reject any accusation of there being even a soupçon of self-interest in this sudden vocality. It is pure coincidence that this involves funding for our future programs going to our good friends at MOD.
What nobody said. Aid agencies are dead right to be critical of this public marriage of aid and national security interests / defence. We need to complain about this more forcefully. But in the real world — Why wouldn’t governments prioritize political interests and military objectives (e.g., winning hearts and minds in hostile territory) over the moral pursuit of foreign aid and development? NGOs, on the other hand, might be expected to conduct themselves differently. And yet the much-decried “blurring of the lines” (between aid and military) is not simply the work of governments/armies.
NGOs have accepted funding from governments to work in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, where those very governments have been a belligerent party in the war. Like a Pakistani NGO taking money from al Qaeda to run a clinic in Sussex. Doesn’t look good. Afghanistan also provides a textbook example of NGOs, even while not accepting funds directly from warring parties, simply and without sufficient questioning setting up their aid programs on only one side of war, delivering aid to areas within Western military or Afghan government control. This lopsided aid effort effectively supports the NATO/US/Karzai plan. It aims to build the legitimacy of the Afghan government and popular gratitude to the Western invaders. Bottom line: it doesn’t look like aid to the guys with the guns on the other side of the fence.
What I previously said. Can you imagine the Daily Mail headlines if it were reporting on this same story elsewhere? What if Robert Mugabe decided to use its own HIV and education budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects? What if President Goodluck Jonathan decided to reassign a DFID grant to Nigeria’s military peacekeeping activities in Mali? Whether or not there is a perfectly acceptable legality to the UK government’s manoeuvring, corruption is the word we’d use if the Tories were African.
What I think. Aid and defence mix well in a political analysis, poorly in a humanitarian one. And we can probably conclude that the hard-boiled world of political opportunism seems like a right stench compared to the perfumed corridors of aid. Then again, so does the whiff of NGO opportunism.