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Editorial: Johnson and DFID: Aid, trade and warmongering

GLOBAL Justice Now describes Boris Johnson’s abolition of the Department for International Development as “the culmination of a decade-long corporate hijack of aid.”

The reform redirects money towards the projection of British power abroad, and Johnson’s explanations in Parliament show that he intends to use the cash to ratchet up the new cold war created by US President Donald Trump’s shredding of disarmament treaties and trigger-happy use of sanctions and trade warfare.

“We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, though the latter is vital for European security,” Johnson says, indicating that a government that declares public holidays in honour of Nazi collaborators and Holocaust perpetrators is in line for more assistance with its brutal war on anti-fascist separatists in the Donbass. 

“We give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling,” he says in an even more open admission that British aid is now to be deployed to the strategic advantage of the US-led Nato alliance.

While the Labour leadership has criticised the government’s decision as a “distraction” which “diminishes Britain’s place in the world,” a more trenchant critique would recognise that Johnson is accelerating a process that has seen “aid” money used to make profits for corporations and promote deregulation and marketisation of services in foreign countries.

It is over four years since a Global Justice Now report, The Privatisation of UK Aid, exposed the vast sums being funnelled through Adam Smith International, as well as the good causes that company used it for.

These included the privatisation of the Nigerian energy sector, as well as “helping” Afghanistan rewrite laws to make its mineral-extraction sector more “investor-friendly” despite local concerns over transparency and environmental and public health.

If anyone ever really saw British aid money as “a giant cashpoint in the sky,” as Johnson describes it – drawing, in the process, an entirely misleading picture of the British state as a generous benefactor of poorer nations – it was surely the consultants and shareholders at Adam Smith International rather than ordinary people in Nigeria or Afghanistan.

British aid money was also used to promote the privatisation of schooling systems in Kenya and Uganda. As Diane Abbott, then shadow international development secretary, said in 2016: “We need to critically assess if the sort of free market reforms that Adam Smith International is enabling in the developing world, using UK taxpayers’ money, are actually helping to alleviate poverty or if they are making it worse.”

Abbott, like Labour’s shadow international trade secretary from 2016-20, Barry Gardiner, was willing to do more than simply attack Tory cuts in pointing to the structural injustices in the global economy that empower transnational corporations to trample over democratic rights.

The Jeremy Corbyn leadership’s ambition to rewrite the rules of international trade on fairer and less exploitative lines was gradually submerged as the party moved towards a Remain position on the EU between 2017 and 2019, as Labour’s refusal to diverge from EU models restricted its ability to articulate alternatives.

That should not trouble the left today, when the slogan “build back better” is being taken up across the labour movement to make clear that we are not prepared to simply go back to the way things were before the pandemic, but determined to forge a better society and stronger economy from it.

Labour should vow to reverse Johnson’s abolition of a department for international aid, but should also commit to ensuring any re-established department directs its resources to fighting poverty and disease rather than lining the pockets of the private sector.

And the left should note that Johnson’s redefinition of aid will see our money used to fuel conflicts abroad and heightens the threat of war. The revival of a mass-scale peace movement is becoming more urgent.

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