David Cameron hadn’t even slipped into his first Eton blazer when the United Kingdom committed itself to spend 0.7% of its gross national product on official development assistance. And yet, in the middle of an economic crisis (which he’s had a little more involvement with), he is bound by this 43-year-old commitment and it’s giving him a bit of a headache.
The problem, you see, is that his government isn’t very flush at the minute. He’s having to do all kinds of things he’d rather not, like slash public salaries, lay off nurses, and curtail all manner of services, from bus routes to disability benefits to judges’ pensions. He even had to trim the Queen’s annual stipend. The Queen! The one thing he can’t really touch is the international development budget, currently running at around £10 billion (R120 billion).
Not that Britain is meeting that 0.7% figure. In fact, of the 16 countries that pledged to uphold it, only four have made good on their promise: Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden. Cameron’s Britain is currently at around 0.55%, which is actually not a bad show. The United States, by contrast, is at just 0.2% and appears to have stopped trying.
Cameron, to his credit (and to please his Liberal Democrat coalition partners), consistently maintains that his government will strive to reach the 0.7% target, and he certainly is not countenancing any backward steps: the international development budget, therefore, is ring-fenced. It is immune from the cuts.
But he’s made a few other promises, has the prime minister, and there’s one in particular that he’s worried about. In 2010 – the year he wielded the austerity knife the hardest – he struck a deal with his top generals to freeze the military budget until 2015. That gave him five years to get the economy back to normal and find some money to buy more tanks and submarines or whatever it is that the military needs more of.
But 2015 is fast approaching, and there’s no sign of any extra cash. In fact, quite the opposite; in the last budget, treasury chief George Osborne actually cut military spending. The generals weren’t happy, and – as every African dictator well knows – it’s vitally important to keep generals happy.
So what to do? There’s a bunch of money being spent on poor African countries and the like, and the generals want a bunch more money on top of the £32 billion they’re already getting. If only he could find a way to spend the aid money on the generals.
This conundrum was no match for Cameron’s problem-solving skills; he is nothing if not an exceptionally canny politician. On Wednesday in Amritsar – where he conspicuously failed to apologise for a barbaric massacre overseen by a previous century’s British generals – he outlined his vision for a military-led development policy which would see hundreds of millions of pounds from the aid budget used to supplement “peace-keeping operations” in conflict countries.
“We should be thinking very carefully about how we help states that have been riven by conflict and war. I think it’s obviously true that if you can help deliver security and help provide stability then that is the base from which all development can proceed,” he said.
In this logic – and it’s not as crazy as it sounds at first glance – the best guarantor of stability and ultimately development is a peaceful country. This peace needs to be enforced by “peace keepers”, which is another way of describing soldiers with a limited mandate.The military, therefore, is one of the best ways to guarantee development in unstable countries, and it makes complete sense to use Britain’s aid money to fund Britain’s military.
Cameron and his officials were at pains to point out that there would be limits to this budgetary overlap. No, the money would not be used to buy tanks, or to finance any kind of combat equipment, and would be compliant with international rules that define how aid money should be spent, as dictated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who are the good people who established the 0.7% rule in the first place.
This, however, is politician-speak. Every pound that the military does not have to spend on training, transport, provisions or any of the other costs associated with “peace-keeping” is money it’s free to spend on anything else it wants. Effectively, this diversion of aid money to military control subsidises military spending on things like tanks and combat operations.
In fact, when you step back a second, the whole thing is the twisted logic of politicians: at no point should the solution to underdevelopment be greater funding for the British military. It’s madness. Why not give Coca-Cola a wad of cash to fight obesity while we’re at it? Or ask the Pope to lead the fight for gay rights?
Foreign intervention forces, be they of the combat or peace-keeping variety, have an exceptionally limited success rate, often further destabilising countries rather than the opposite. And the British in particular have a lot to answer for – it was their relentless, extractive empire-building that made a mess of so much of the world to begin with. Yes, Britain has a responsibility to help fix the mess it made. But no, the fix should not come down the barrel of a British gun.
Cameron’s noble vision of development led by benign British peacekeepers is a cynical window-dressing of his more selfish goal: to increase Britain’s military spending while keeping his own budget intact, as well as fulfilling his promise to maintain overseas aid. It completely defeats the spirit and intent of the 0.7% rule, and is dangerous because if Cameron gets away with it – which he probably will – he’s created the template for countries to expand their own military in the name of international philanthropy. In the near future, expect to see a lot of countries put more money towards their “peace-keeping” operations. Don’t expect to see any consequent increase in actual peace. DM
Photo: Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron visits the holy Sikh shrine of Golden temple in Amritsar February 20, 2013. Cameron on Wednesday became the first serving prime minister to voice regret about one of the British Empire’s bloodiest episodes in India and laid a wreath at Amritsar, scene of a notorious massacre of unarmed civilians. REUTERS/Munish Sharma
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