Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Brits abroad: star donor or charity mugger?

A few months after the coalition agreement, I abandoned ship to go and live somewhere with economic growth and the confidence to welcome foreigners. Living now in Senegal, and working across west Africa, I’ve been made to rethink from a different perspective about what matters in development – and often it has little to do with aid.

Don’t get me wrong; I fully support Britain’s leadership on aid. It may have its flaws, but well-spent aid can save lives in disasters, stop mothers dying in childbirth and get more kids in school. But it’s just a small cog in a bigger machine and, well, not really a proper development policy.

Europe’s approach to migration is, for example, just as important as its approach to aid, and the tragedy at Lampedusa provides a chilling insight about global inequality. When tens of thousands of people board boats to take a journey where 1 in 5 of them won’t make it, to reach a country where one in three young people are out of work, something is wrong.

It’s such a common story in Senegal – in conversation I learned by chance that the security guard in my building tried and failed twice to make the crossing – and it’s as linked to the European trawlers who decimate the country’s fishing communities as it is the patrol boats which guard the frontiers.

And yet migrants can play an extraordinary role in poverty reduction if allowed to work and support their families. Remittances sent home by workers dwarf aid budgets – they make up 10 per cent of Senegal’s GDP – and so anything we do to make that more difficult, like Barclay’s withdrawing money transfers to Somalia, or failing to clamp down on gangmasters, counts just as much as any cut in aid.

This struck me most when meeting villagers in Mali who were in the grip of a major drought. Crops had failed and they were struggling, but the biggest complaint was actually the crisis in the Spanish economy – the safety nets provided by their brothers and cousins abroad another victim of Europe’s austerity.

It goes beyond that. The drought those villagers were suffering – alongside 18 million others across the Sahel region – was far from a random act of God. Whereas deadly droughts used to occur there once in a generation, they now occur once every couple of years. If you want another stark reminder of the nature of global inequality it is to meet a woman in Chad who has been digging for grains in anthills in part because our addiction to carbon has caused the rains to fail once again.

The aid we pumped in to respond to this crisis did save people’s lives, but the carbon we continue to pump out keeps ruining them.

That crisis was also exacerbated by another that has dominated much of my work life – the conflict in Mali that saw half the country occupied by various jihadist and separatist groups and pushed 500,000 people to flee their homes. The causes are complex and local, but the trigger was closer to Westminster – the intervention that toppled Gaddafi also set loose a vast supply of arms and fighters that destabilised the whole region, turning a crisis into a catastrophe for many.

It’s not just the unforeseen consequences of our interventions that count. Libya, which became the arms depot of insurgents across the region, received £2.3bn of British arms in the two years before Gaddafi’s downfall. It also features among the 27 countries to which the UK has sold $12bn of arms in recent years despite featuring on our own list of states committing human rights abuses. A bit of aid isn’t going to make up for that.

And what about our contribution to promoting good governance and democracy, part of David Cameron’s ‘Golden Thread’ of development? One of the most extraordinary things I lived through was Senegal’s fiercely and peacefully contested election. An ageing president, a once great hope corrupted by power and patronage, was removed at the ballot box as young people rallied to protect their democracy. Audits followed and the president’s son – popularly known as ‘The Minister for the Earth and Sky’ due to his multiple portfolios – was put in prison to face charges of embezzling up to £1bn over a decade. This move is probably worth more than any aid package, but the UK’s role is not glorious. The British Virgin Islands – one of 10 tax havens in British overseas territories or crown dependencies – is alleged to be home to some of the swag.

Add this to the fact that developing countries lose three times as much money to tax havens every year than they receive in aid and you start to wonder whether Britain and the west’s relationship with Africa is of giving financial support or aiding and abetting a mugging.

As Labour thinks ahead to prepare a new government in 2015, there is no doubt it should protect and be proud of the 0.7 per cent aid target finally achieved on the coalition’s watch. But the vision should be bigger – one that looks at the entirety of Britain and Europe’s role in the world, beyond one department and one budget line. It could be a Britain to be proud of, and one worth investing in.

And, you never know, a fair migration policy that regularises the black market and levels the playing field, the creation of green jobs, the defence of human rights and a crackdown on tax evasion, could even be a vote-winner in the fight against poverty and inequality at home too.


Steve Cockburn is a regional manager of an international NGO, based in Senegal. He was a founding member of the Labour Campaign for International Development and blogs at


Photo: Luke and Kate Bosman

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Steve Cockburn


  • Very interesting article. Raises the question as to whether we need to become a One People world as much as a One Nation country.

    The big question: What’s in it for the British voter? Or the multiplicity of politicians…

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