Why UK cut aid to Rwanda – the economy, stupid

4 Dec


Last Friday, the United Kingdom cut aid to Rwanda, citing the latter’s alleged support for the M23 rebels in eastern D R Congo. The move was not unexpected. There has been a loud clamour for it from the very moment M23 began their mutiny.

But is the actual reason for cutting aid really the supposed backing of M23? It would appear not.

Most keen observers – the sort who are not taken in by eye-catching but deceitful headlines or false accounts – do not see a useful link between cutting aid and ending the conflict in D R Congo. Among them is Ms Jendayi Fraser, former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the George W Bush Administration. Appearing on Al Jazeera, she said blaming one country and finger-pointing has never helped solve problems in the Great Lakes Region. Cutting aid to Rwanda won’t be a solution to the conflict in DRC.

Mr Paul Vallely, writing in The Independent on 2/12/2012, questioned what the UK will achieve by cutting aid. In his view, nothing, except to hurt the progress that Rwanda has already made.

Both find fault with the Group of Experts report which has supposedly informed the British action. Ms Fraser thinks it is unreliable because its authors are anonymous and their accusations are not supported by evidence.

Then consider the timing of the cut. If it was meant to pressure the Government of Rwanda into withdrawing its supposed support for M23, then the timing was definitely wrong. It came when M23 rebels were pulling out of the areas they had captured from the shockingly inept Congolese army following pressure from the leaders of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). The initial demands to cease hostilities and withdraw were made by Presidents Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni and Joseph Kabila, and endorsed by the ICGLR.

If we follow the logic for withdrawing aid to Rwanda, the most sensible reaction to what the three presidents had done should have been reward, not punishment.

Could the wrong timing have been a result of a bumbling government? Hardly. Bumbling of this sort is not in the British character.

Clearly, linking aid to the crisis in Congo is only a convenient pretext. The real cause for cutting aid is elsewhere, most likely in the economic hardship the West is facing. The West is going through unprecedented economic turmoil. There is a lot of popular discontent, especially in Southern Europe where there is record unemployment, mortgage defaults and repossession of houses. But even in the traditionally more prosperous north, all is not well either. The economies of the United Kingdom and France are limping.

British commentators admit the connection between reconsidering aid and domestic economic realities. The Bagehot column in The Economist of 10th November, 2012 questioned the wisdom of continuing aid support to developing countries when things are grim at home. In his opinion, Britain should stop punching above its weight in a world where its economic and military advantages have shrunk. That admission, however, did not stop him from hurling the now familiar insults at Rwanda.

Lord Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, has been even more scathing in his criticism. He wondered on a Channel 4 programme last week how, in a time of austerity, Britain should increase aid when public spending had been slashed. He called it “particularly crazy” and “difficult to justify”.

Then Lord Lawson remembered why he was appearing on Channel 4 – to nail Rwanda, not to come clean on aid and domestic economic woes. In a classic mix of arrogance and ignorance and a reminder of Thatcherite callousness, Lord Lawson says Britain should stop giving aid to a” monster” and an “unsavoury regime”

I doubt Lord Lawson knows where Rwanda is or is interested in what goes on there. He probably based his judgement on what he has read in The Daily Telegraph (he almost certainly doesn’t read The Guardian or Daily Mail), watched on BBC Television, or on the prompting of a biased presenter like Jonathan Miller.

Domestic economic woes are obviously difficult to accept. The steady decline of the once powerful nation on earth is particularly difficult to come to terms with. As often happens in such cases, it is easier to package unpleasant reality in more presentable form likely to find acceptance from the ordinary people. And so the choice to cut aid is presented as a philanthropic imperative to appeal to that streak of the British character. But it turns out to be a cynical manipulation of an otherwise noble inclination of the British by politicians, their media allies and NGO errand boys (and increasingly, more girls).

Considering all that was said before the decision to slash aid was finally reached, you would think that the UK government agonised over the choice given Rwanda’s record on efficient use of aid. Both Labour and Tory governments have had good relations with Rwanda in the last eighteen years.

But the agonising may have been only appearance. The moment Andrew Mitchell, then Secretary for International development, did what he judged to be right and within his authority, the Labour opposition was quick to pounce to score political points, the merits of whether Rwanda deserved aid notwithstanding.

Now, no British Government, afraid of losing domestic support, would its life on the line for a country far away in the heart of Africa.  It was left to Ms Justine Greening, concerned about what Bagehot called “self-preservation” to wield the axe in this political points contest, cut their losses and chop aid to Rwanda.

All the talk about support for rebels and other high-minded concerns is a diversion. The real issue is realpolitic and realeconomic.


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