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Did I just agree with Donald Trump?

Stephen White
© Crystal Eye Studio |

Should foreign aid be traded for domestic support? Just before Christmas, when almost every member of the United Nations voted in favour of a resolution condemning the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move its embassy there, President Trump retaliated: ’We’ll save a lot. We don’t care. But this isn’t like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re not going to be taken advantage of any longer’. On New Years Day he reminded Pakistan that in return for $33 billion of aid over the last 15 years ‘they have given us nothing but lies and deceit……No more’. Only a day later he tweeted that the US pays the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and gets no appreciation or respect in return. On January 5th he threatened to delay a payment of $125 million to UNRWA, the United Nations agency which helps Palestinian refugees and as good as his word last Tuesday he prevented half of this amount being paid over.

So far, so normal (at least in these days of Trump). But I was struck by the similarity of sentiment in an article by the recently appointed Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Morduant, writing in The Daily Telegraph on Monday. Recognising that there is significant public dissatisfaction in the amount of foreign aid distributed by the UK, and the destinations of some of that money, she set out a five-point pledge on foreign aid expenditure during her watch. One pledge is not to spend money ‘when others should be putting their hands in their pockets’. She says she will ‘ensure that our aid spend directly contributes to tackling that matter most to the British people’. And in summary that the UK spend on foreign aid will be ‘firmly in the national interest and hard headed too’.

Now for a deal maker the concept of getting something back in return is fundamental. And nobody is a better deal maker than Donald Trump, most particularly in his own estimation. So, we should be unsurprised by his distaste for foreign aid recipients who not only don’t reciprocate with some form of support but actually take political decisions which are contrary to the aspirations of the USA. That a career politician like Penny Morduant shares this approach is more interesting.  I would have expected her to espouse the Middle England view that foreign aid is akin to charity, and that it is impolite, maybe even rude to give it and at the same time expect to get something back in return. Trump’s action to prevent payment to UNRWA uncannily mirrors Penny Morduant’s pledges; firstly, because the US have for some time been critical of the oil rich Gulf states who are not generous in their support of Palestinian refugees, and whose money, when they do give, rarely filters down to the intended recipients, and secondly because the declaration by the Palestinian authorities that any peace proposal made by the USA will be ignored by them is unhelpful.

Somehow the expectation of a trade in return for a supporting a benevolent enterprise seems to taint it. After all none of us would expect reciprocity having made a charitable donation to Children in Need or DEC. Indeed, getting something of value in return for a charitable donation is technically illegal in UK law (and incidentally forms part of the controversy about Royal Albert Hall debenture holders being able to sell on their seats at a profit).

My argument is not about whether Penny Morduant’s thinking is legitimate. Yes, this is taxpayer’s money. There are other ways it could be used. So, whilst it is entirely proper that our foreign aid budget should be protected and ring fenced, I get the point that if the recipients cock a snook (for our American readers – give the five fingered salute) at the donors, then the donors might reasonably reconsider their priorities when it comes to giving more. But there are opposing arguments which are also powerful, including those surrounding local autonomy, cultural imperialism and political independence.

My thoughts are rather about the negotiating ramifications of giving something and expecting abuse in return. It seems to me that is a one-way street to continuing abuse; that abuse is demonstrated nowhere better than in the United Nations itself, which has become a trading floor based on outrageous start positions. No longer do sovereign states take decisions and vote on resolutions based on the good of the world, or for the promotion of peace. Instead they sell their political compliance in return for more and more aid, and the more negative is their start position, the higher is their price. The behind-the-scenes hustling that took place before the Security Council votes before the Iraq war showed the world just how far from its ideals the UN had fallen. 

Galls me to say it, but on this occasion Donald is right.

Stephen White
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