The End of British Aid to South Africa: Cock-Up, Conspiracy or Correct?

Will Lord

British aid to South Africa will be phased out by 2015. (Photograph: AP)

British aid to South Africa will be phased out by 2015. (Photograph: AP/The Guardian)

The position of Secretary of State for International Development is considered by many as one of the cosier jobs in the British Cabinet. It was therefore a little surprising when the current holder of the role, Justine Greening, broke the mold by instigating a political row over development assistance. On Tuesday 7th May, she announced that the UK would be stopping its flow of direct aid to South Africa by 2015. The British government’s position was clear: as a growing economy that is becoming more and more able to finance its own public services, South Africa has less need of the £19 million in British aid it currently receives than poorer countries on the continent. The International Development Secretary noted that South Africa is ‘now in a position to fund its own development’ and that the relationship between the two countries should be now based on a partnership of equals, centred on governmental co-operation and trade. By phasing out aid to South Africa, the Department for International Development has been consistent with its policy of ending support to emerging, middle-income economies such as China and India.

However despite the government’s reasoning, the decision to end aid has not gone unopposed. The South African government released its own statement expressing disappointment over the move and claimed that the decision had been made without proper consultations through the right bilateral channels. It also hinted that the relationship between the two countries will suffer as a result. The UK’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, responded with a claim that the South African government had been told about the decision months in advance and the different interpretations may be down to ‘bureaucratic confusion’. Opposition has also come from the Labour Party. Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Secretary for International Development, criticised his opposite number on two counts: firstly, given that 72% of the world’s poorest live in middle-income countries like South Africa (which has 15 million people living on less than $2 a day), a poverty-reduction strategy based on shifting aid away from these countries may end up being counter-productive. The second was particularly noteworthy in that he opposed the move on the grounds of Britain’s national interest, claiming the government’s ‘high-handed and patronising’ way of delivering the news would hurt the UK’s relationship with an emerging commercial partner. The former Labour minister and anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain also made a strong critique of the government’s decision, arguing that Britain has a historic obligation to provide aid given its colonial role and lateness in applying sanctions against the apartheid regime in the 1980s. Interestingly, he too put a particular premium on the idea that the decision would harm Britain’s economic interests, noting that South Africa acts as a link between UK firms and dynamic African economies.

What is to be made of this? Firstly, it is clear that even if this move was planned, the manner in which it was announced was driven by politics in Britain itself. Given strong public support for cuts to the aid budget in an age of austerity at home, the timing of the government’s decision (made two days before local elections in key Conservative-leaning seats in the South of England) made it look all-too akin to a sop to voters. The Conservative Party’s fear of the rise of UKIP, which has spoken out against a growing aid budget in the past, seems to have been essential in hurrying the announcement without proper consultation with South Africa. However, whilst the rushed nature of the statement was problematic, it is worth noting that shifting support to the very poorest countries may be the only way to justify Britain’s relatively large aid budget to the public. Furthermore, the £19 million the UK is donating is significant but the South African government’s indignation seems to be more based on the way in which it was cancelled, rather than the cancellation itself. After all, UK aid accounted for just 4% of the total received by the country in 2011. But the rushed manner of ending it without consultation somewhat undermined Greening’s claim that this was the first step to a real partnership of equals. On balance, the decision seems to be an understandable one, but communicated in the worst possible fashion.

But what is perhaps most interesting is what the arguments surrounding the decision say about the UK’s current discourse on foreign aid. What stands out especially is a particular focus on economic gains driving Britain’s aid to and engagement with developing countries. In the face of a stagnant economy, the need to increase exports and public scepticism about aid, one of policy makers’ biggest justifications for aid and support seems to be the way in which they link Britain to growing foreign markets, a break from the greater focus on poverty-alleviation in the 2000s. Aid is now promoted more and more as a hard-headed way of building links that can bring jobs and business to Britain. In many ways, this is an extension of William Hague’s approach to foreign policy, which prioritises commercial relations and consolidating Britain’s position in global networks such as the Commonwealth. Now this attitude seems to have extended to DFID’s development agenda and the debates surrounding it. Aid from developed countries like Britain has never been totally altruistic, but in an age of austerity it is perhaps less so than ever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CAPTCHA Image

*