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Aid Britannia: Aspirations vs. Politics

Aid Britannia: Aspirations vs. Politics

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan talk during a meeting at the State House, on July 19, 2011 in Lagos, Nigeria – Getty Images

 The Economist recently ran an article that highlights the tension between spending on foreign assistance and domestic political support for it.  Prime Minister David Cameron, who ran on a platform supporting more aid and has insulated it from the cuts he has levied on almost every other part of government, is the latest to find himself in this political quandary.  On a recent trip to Africa he tried to strike a tone that would please audiences at home and abroad:

In Lagos, Mr Cameron painted a vision of British aid as a catalyst for economic growth. To reassure “aid sceptics” back home, who worry about money going astray, Britain will focus its cash on things that are “quantifiable and measurable”, such as campaigns to vaccinate millions of children, he vowed. The prime minister talked of unclogging regional and international trade with investments in new internet links, roads and more professional customs services. He positively boasted that he had flown to Africa with a plane “full of business leaders”. Yes, Britain should help the starving and those ravaged by war, drought and disease, he said; but growth, nurtured by free trade and political reforms, had the potential to wean Africa off aid altogether.

As Britain moves to reduce the size of its armed forces Cameron is seeking to position the country as an aid superpower.  As the chart below indicates, Britain already has a preponderance of soft power.  But is it sustainable (politically or financially) in lean times?

Aid Britannia: Aspirations vs. Politics

Cameron might want to look to the American case of the perception-reality gap in managing the politics around foreign aid (see below from Sarah Sullivan at the PBS News Hour):

When asked in a recent poll how much the U.S. government spends on foreign aid, Americans vastly overestimated the amount — which might explain why politicians look to that area first when considering budget cuts, some analysts say. The survey, conducted by the project at the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, asked the question: “What percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid?” The median answer was roughly 25 percent, according to the poll of 848 Americans. In reality, about 1 percent of the budget is allotted to foreign aid 

“Foreign aid is clearly on the chopping block these days,” says James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The public’s inflated sense of foreign aid spending helps explain why so many politicians are quick to volunteer aid programs for the budget axe.”




James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement