The UK government’s decision to stop bilateral aid to South Africa in 2015 has aroused significant controversy. As a UK taxpayer and long-time observer of all things South African I feel compelled to blog about this one! Not least because it appears that the popular view within Britain is that this was a good decision. For example, 83% of respondents to a poll on the Guardian website agreed that the UK government was right to cut aid to South Africa.
Despite the fact that official development assistance (commonly known as aid) will always remain a ‘sticking plaster’ approach to the world’s development challenges, I would still suggest this policy is problematic. Not least, it is questionable even on the UK government’s own terms. Justine Greening, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, justified the decision on the grounds that “South Africa has made enormous progress over the past two decades, to the extent that it is now the region’s economic powerhouse and Britain’s biggest trading partner in Africa”. However, the suggestion that South Africa is now an economic powerhouse ignores the daily reality for the majority of its citizens. Inequality, poverty and unemployment remain entrenched despite it being nearly two decades since the end of apartheid.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to pose a major public health challenge. According to UNAIDS 5.6 million people are living with HIV in South Africa, which translates into a prevalence rate amongst 15-49 year olds of 17.3%. It is notable that HIV projects are currently one of the central elements of the British aid programme in South Africa. As a result, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance was critical of the UK government’s decision, suggesting that “withdrawing aid to middle income countries like South Africa altogether risks seeing investment made in the HIV response to date, as well as subsequent gains including broader health outcomes, undermined and worse rendered ineffective”.
Defending the announcement, Business Secretary, Vince Cable, suggested that South Africa (along with India) had achieved a ‘successful level of development’. Hmm, really Vince?! Take, for example, the UNDP’s Human Development Index as a measure of development. We find that South Africa has made virtually no progress over recent decades: in 1990 South Africa’s HDI was 0.621 and the latest figure for 2012 is 0.629 (UNDP, Human Development Report 2013, p. 149).
UK aid to South Africa has fallen from a peak of £40-million in 2003 to its current level of £19-million. What does this mean in the overall context of UK aid spending? Well, for 2011/12 DFID’s bilateral expenditure on development was £4,204 million, so development assistance to South Africa only represented 4.5% of this. However, for me, it is less about the money itself, although this has clearly been of some benefit in some targeted aid programmes; it is more about the ideas that this pronouncement reinforces. There are three aspects of the signal this decision sends which are troubling:
- It reinforces the popular perception that human development is merely about rising levels of GDP at the level of nation-states. We need to conceptualise underdevelopment in human terms, rather than taking a state-centric view of the world.
- It implies that, despite the damage done to Southern Africa through centuries of British colonial rule, and the support provided by successive British governments to the economy during apartheid, it is now not our responsibility to try to help those who continue to suffer the consequences of the entrenched inequalities that this historical relationship has contributed to.
- The underlying assumption behind the decision is that the neoliberal mantra of free trade will be the route to development for countries like South Africa.
All these assumptions should be challenged!