In the row about MEP Godfrey Bloom’s remarks over not giving aid to Bongo Bongo Land, one person has been conspicuously silent. Despite the slights that Mr Bloom has heaped upon his country, we still haven’t heard from the Ambassador of Bongo Bongo Land. Was he not listening to Radio Four’s Today programme when Mr Bloom offered to personally apologise to him if any offence had been caused? And if so, does Bongo Bongo Land’s representative to the Court of St James’s not have something to say in his country’s defence?
My guess is that if Bongo Bongo Land’s embassy is like that of many other African missions to London – the more chaotic of which I frequently have the misfortune of seeking visas from – he will either be unaware of the news entirely, or have sent Mr Bloom a strongly worded letter from a fax machine that hasn’t worked since about 1987.
However, should His Excellency still be thinking of putting pen to paper, I’d like to suggest a few things for him to say by way of riposte. For I too find Mr Bloom’s comments very worrying, although not in the way that he has been called on to apologise for. It says a lot about modern, liberal Britain that the fuss been largely about his use of the words “Bongo Bongo”, rather than why he was using the phrase in the first place – namely, to advance a short-sighted, kneejerk argument that overseas aid money should be spent at home instead. For anyone who professes to care about Africa’s future, it is what he was saying, not how he said it, that should be worrying.
The money Mr Bloom was referring to is the 0.7 per cent of GDP that David Cameron has pledged to ring-fence for overseas aid, a target that developed countries agreed upon decades ago, but which so only a few Scandinavian nations have reached. It’s an honourable enough aim, and in committing his government to it, Mr Cameron also made the point that the Left does not have a monopoly on caring about what happens in the Third World.
In the age of austerity, a growing number of voices on the Right, including many more moderate than Mr Bloom, have queried this spending. Yet to argue that it should be cut just because times are now slightly harder in Britain shows an utter lack of perspective. It is not just that it is less than a penny in every pound. The whole idea is that it is a fixed – and relatively forgettable – sum, set aside irrespective of the fluctuations of our own economy. No one is arguing it should go up in good times. In the same way, it shouldn’t go down when times are hard.
And let’s be honest, hard times in Britain are not that hard compared to hard times in Bongo Bongo Land. Yes, an extra 0.7 per cent chucked into our bottomless health service budget might mean slighter shorter waiting lists here or there, and slightly fewer gripes about our “Third World Health Service”. The fact is, though, that in much of the Third World, there isn’t really a Health Service at all, only private. If you fall seriously ill in Bongo Bongo Land, you either pay for decent treatment yourself or you get nothing. Aid can help change that. Just as it can deliver improvements in schooling, policing and many other areas of life. Especially when one is starting from such a low base.
If you don’t buy my argument on it, try buying Aid and Other Dirty Business, a highly-readable account of how the aid world works (and where it doesn’t). The author, Giles Bolton, spent a number of years for Dfid in Rwanda, but he is no muesli-grazing yoghurt weaver, and pulls no punches when criticising his own profession. Those who despise aid workers, for example, will appreciate his criticisms of colleagues who stay in five star hotels while claiming hardship allowances.
Bolton gives some useful facts and figures about what aid works and why. Charitable causes like Oxfam and Live Aid may have the profile, but the vast bulk of overseas aid is actually governmental aid, either via the likes of DFID, or given by HMG via contributions to the UN and World Bank. This, Bolton points out, is the cash that really makes a difference, knocking points off mortality rates and development indexes over the course of a single decade. Not just because there is more of it, but because it comes in relatively steady chunks, allowing recipient countries to do some reasonable planning.
Yes, it may be very “big government”. And no, it doesn’t say much for Cameron’s Big Society love-in with small, independent charitable initiatives, such, indeed, as the Tories’ own project Project Umubano in Rwanda. But charities are there to fill in gaps, not build a country from scratch. And welcome though they are, having thousands of different ones working in a single country can easily overwhelm a government’s ability to co-ordinate them, especially when there are only one or two government officials competent enough to assess what is needed.
Where Bolton is most illuminating, though, is on the issue of corruption. Or, as Mr Bloom puts it, the risk of taxpayers’ cash being siphoned off to fund “Ray-Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and all the rest of it”. These days, thankfully, that is not quite the problem it used to be. Aid is much more closely audited, and the era of the Cold War dictator who would be unquestioningly bankrolled by either East or West are over. But happen it still does. Money is also squandered through aid bureaucracy, duplication, sheer incompetence and other factors that would not get a lot of laughs were they aired on Comic Relief Night. Indeed, according to Bolton, on average only 50 per cent of Dfid’s own aid was effective – ie actually going directly to the people or causes it was supposed to be benefiting. And Dfid are supposed to be one of the most efficient.
But rather than agonising over this, Bolton argues that we should simply accept this as part of the difficulties of working in such parts of the world. “Though there must be maximum effort to minimise corruption, it’s a reality that must be accepted,” he writes. “If African systems were so positively efficient, they doubtless wouldn’t need anyone else’s help.”
This kind of candour, however, is difficult for British politicians to adopt, austerity or not. MPs fall over themselves to say how familiar they are with life’s grim realities, but only as much as it concerns low-income workers, struggling nurses, hard-pressed families or whoever. Making a reasoned, far-sighted argument that corruption and waste are just “realities” we have to live with isn’t easy, especially when it comes to sending taxpayers’ cash abroad. But perhaps we should. And if our own politicians can’t do it, perhaps it’s a job for our ambassador friend in his letter to Mr Bloom. After all, it’s him that stands to lose. Even if he might be confirming some of our worst fears about life in Bongo Bongo Land.