Britain’s failing ARC, the Aid and Reconstruction Complex

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 27, 2022

The other day I came across an interesting statistic. Britain, it seems, missed the September deadline to provide $288m to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The GCF was set up within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to help poorer countries adapt and mitigate climate effects. So Britain didn’t pay into that in time and also failed to pay the $20.6m it had separately pledged to the climate adaptation fund.

All those unpaid sums should be set alongside another figure – $2.05 bn. That amount will be cut from the UK’s aid budget. It’s the third trim in three years, an inevitable haircut considering the state of the British economy.

Britain is beset by double-digit inflation, which means that even maintaining the aid budget at its current level could be taken as a substantial real-term cut. This has prompted much criticism. Devex, the global development media outlet, quotes Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond, the UK network for International NGOs, as follows: “Yet again, the government looks set to force further cuts to UK aid, which will mean more programmes delivering lifesaving healthcare, clean water and sanitation, and shelter will come to an end”.

In a jab at Britain’s decision last year to spend aid money on its own shores – £1 billion on housing refugees, for instance, according to the government’s recently released Statistics on International Development – Mr Starling added: “People already facing poverty, climate change and famine are paying the price for the increase in the Home Office’s UK-based refugee cost”. And he called for the British finance minister and foreign secretary to “urgently refocus UK aid on addressing poverty internationally and develop a plan to return to spending 0.7% of GNI on UK aid.”

That’s a well-intentioned request but here’s a question: how is cash-strapped Britain meant to do all of this? Or rather, with what resources is Britain meant to do all of this?

While it’s still a relatively rich country, there are currently few prospects for economic growth and productivity, the tax burden is rising in order to keep public services at a lower-than-expected level and there is little hope of even a smidgen of jam today or tomorrow.

The so-called “saviour narrative” often has the erstwhile big beasts of the world order declaring that they will pay handsomely in order to protect the poor bleeding masses in other parts of the planet. And they can, if their economy is in fine fettle, their people productive and politics ticking over in a wholesome fashion.

But what if a country has made a series of catastrophic decisions – leaving the world’s largest single market, for example? Or messing up the relationship with its constituent nations? Or failing to equip its people with the skills they need for lifelong learning and change-readiness? Or lagging on technological adaptation and reform of bureaucratic processes? What if one particular political decision  – for instance, erecting non-tariff barriers to the enormous single market on its doorstep – has negatively affected nearly half its trade? What if a country is getting poorer and sees little chance of being rich enough again in the short term to grandly pay to pull others out of the trough?

Mostly, the erstwhile big beasts of the world order don’t like to say they just can’t afford to anymore. Or that they certainly can’t do so for very long and not at the level they might once have managed.

But isn’t it time for a new realism about the ARC, the Aid and Reconstruction Complex?