“Bongo Bongo Land” controversy: Cut arms, not aid

Last year, I visited the Judean desert and met with people who used a water pipe
funded by UK aid money. Before the pipe was fitted, the villagers often had to go ten days without a bath. Now they can bathe every three days. They are also better able to water their vegetables and feed their livestock. The aid money has thus made them more independent, not less.

Despite this, the money is not solving their core problems. These once nomadic people are now largely static, prevented from moving about the desert by the Israeli armed forces, who use the area for training exercises. They live on the eastern side of Palestine, near the Jordanian border.

The UK government had helped them by funding a water pipe, but is failing to help them by speaking out firmly against the behaviour of Israel’s government and army, which might do more to change the underlying situation. British ministers are happy to keep selling weapons to Israel.

I’ve been thinking about this complexity today, following the scandal surrounding UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, who referred to countries that receive UK aid as “Bongo Bongo Land”.

Yesterday, he was said to have “apologised”. Looking at the wording of his statement, I think the word “apology” is stretching it a bit:

“I understand from UKIP party chairman Steve Crowther and leader Nigel Farage that I must not use the terminology in the future, nor will I and sincerely regret any genuine offence which might have been caused or embarrassment to my colleagues.”

So not an apology but a “regret”. And no acceptance that his term is racist, but only a recognition that his party leaders have told him not to use it.

When initially challenged over his “Bongo Bongo Land” comments, Bloom said “It’s sad how anybody can be offended by a reference to a country that doesn’t exist.”

But of course, the countries that receive UK aid do exist and it these countries that Bloom has named “Bongo Bongo Land”. Also, as Zoe Williams points out in an excellent article today, the term has long been used as a derogatory reference to former British colonies.

I am tempted to get sidetracked and focus on Bloom’s other bigoted views (not long after his election, he said that “no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age”). He is a reminder that UKIP is the latest face of the British far-right. But instead, I would rather challenge his views on UK aid.

His opinions on aid are shared by a number of Tory MPs and newspapers. The front page of today’s Daily Mail trails an article by Stephen Glover declaring that Bloom “spoke for Britain on foreign aid”.

The government’s policy is that aid should amount to 0.7% of public spending. That’s 0.7%. Just to be clear, that’s less than a penny in every pound. That’s seven pence out of a tenner. It is not a large proportion.

There are many things that can be said in defence of aid spending – that we live in an interconnected world, that we have a responsibility to each other, that many of the countries receiving UK aid are still suffering from the effects of the transatlantic slave trade and other injustices handed out by the rulers of the British Empire.

All of these are true. But although I am a strong supporter of aid spending, and of the 0.7% commitment, I don’t want to respond to Bloom’s comments by making an uncritical defence of the government’s aid plans.

For one thing, certain ministers are happy to look for ways of observing the letter but not the spirit of this commitment. The government has written off unjust debt and then counted this as aid money – even when the debt in question stood no chance of being repaid. David Cameron has even suggested that part of the aid budget could go towards military spending while still being counted as aid.

For aid to be really effective, it needs to work alongside other, more basic measures that will have a longer-lasting effect. Debt jubilees, new structures for international trade and a new financial system will have much more effect than aid alone.

As I saw in the Judean desert last year, aid spending can be helpful while also being undermined by the UK government’s other activities. For all David Cameron’s talk, aid spending is still vastly smaller than military spending. UKIP not only want to cut aid spending, they want to increase military spending (or “defence spending” as it’s euphemistically called) by a wapping 40%.

If we really want to cut the deficit at the same time as building a more just world, it’s arms we need to cut, not aid.

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