It is impossible to know what exactly lies behind the sublime mandarin prose of the Government’s latest International Development white paper. But when ministers are said to believe that we must act with “humility”, “acknowledge our past” and shift from an “outdated ‘donor-recipient’ model”, my translation into basic English is that we must act as if we owe money to foreign governments as compensation for our past wickedness and must ask no questions and expect nothing in return.
When the former Department for International Development was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I thought naively that this might be a way of coordinating our aid and foreign policy in a way that might benefit Britain as well as recipients. As a French official told me, “We admire your altruistic policy on aid. Of course, we wouldn’t adopt it ourselves.” I mentioned this to a young and rising FCDO official, who was horrified: “We own these countries money for the terrible things we’ve done in the past.”
The arguments against this view of the world seem to me so obvious and now so familiar, I feel almost ashamed to repeat them. But as the Government seems to be tentatively climbing on the reparations bandwagon along with several universities, a number of wealthy families and the Church of England, perhaps it is worth stating the obvious. First, foreign aid is taxpayers’ money, and taxpayers have the right to expect some return and at least the assurance that their money is being properly spent and the outcome monitored. Otherwise, why not allow taxpayers to opt out of the Government’s aid scheme and give their money to a charity of their choice?
Second, those of us who identify in some way with the nation’s past do have causes of regret and even shame (though I doubt if any normal person feels anything like the breast-beating guilt that some try to foist on us). Yes, Britain was a major participant in slavery for a time. Yes, colonialism involved a degree of violence in some circumstances. But equally, even those with the tenderest consciences should also have ample cause for quiet satisfaction and even pride.
Most obviously, Britain led the world in abolishing the various slave trades that had been a fundamental part of human society for as long as history is recorded. It banned British slave trading. It pressed for the insertion of an anti-slave-trade clause in the Treaty of Vienna (1815). It deployed the Royal Navy and diplomatic pressure – and bribes to African rulers sometimes backed up by force – to supress the slave trade from West Africa, even at the risk of major friction with slaving states including France and the USA. It used a huge sum of taxpayers’ money as a means of hastening emancipation. It used diplomatic pressure, ships and money to end the huge trade via East Africa with the Arab world. Some diplomats even ransomed slaves and hid escapees in their own houses. At least the pressure for reparations is causing this extraordinary history to be better known.
As for apologising for our former role in slave-trading – which some say is long overdue – Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger made a heartfelt apology more than 150 years ago for “our long and cruel injustice”.
If that injustice had not in part been repaired by the anti-slavery campaign – which continued well into the 20th century – Britain today would surely be in the same moral position as all those slave-trading and slave-owning states that did little or nothing to stop global slavery at its grim and bloody heyday, or indeed who did their best to perpetuate it. These would include the United States, France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, China, Turkey, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, India – the list is practically endless. Are all those states being pressed to make reparations to somebody? Are their own governments suggesting they should? Not that I’ve heard.
Even if one favours reparations, the obvious question is who should pay them and to whom should they be paid? Who can show that they have suffered from the slave trade more than two centuries ago?
Aid policy should not be distorted by half-baked or self-interested special pleading. If we wish to direct taxpayers money to other countries, it should be on terms we decide and its use and effectiveness should be closely monitored. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating that cynical definition of foreign aid: money given by poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.