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SA, UK and the international politics of ‘aid’

On the 30th of April the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) noted the ‘unilateral announcement’ by the UK to end its Official Development Assistance (ODA), or ‘aid’, to South Africa by 2015. This amounts to some £19 million a year for South Africa, which plays a role in supporting government development initiatives as well as civil society groups in addressing the priorities of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

The reasons behind the decision, set out by the UK International Development Secretary Justine Greening, is that relations with South Africa should be based on trade rather than aid and that South Africa has reached a position where it could fund its own development. This is a position supported by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who claims that the UK could not continue to support South Africa with ODA as it was the continent’s economic powerhouse, with a growing economy and rising incomes. The decision also follows on-going debates within the UK on aid spending and the implementation of austerity measures in addressing the effects of the international financial crisis.

In contrast to the UK government position, the opposition Labour Party has been critical of the decision noting that South Africa remains ‘strategically important’ and that behaving in a ‘high-handed’ manner towards a key emerging power was not in the UK’s national interest’. Certainly the DIRCO has noted that this ‘will affect how our bilateral relations going forward will be conducted’ as well as indicating that this is ‘tantamount to redefining our relationship’. Indeed, in the world of international relations, development assistance has a real ‘soft power’ element, with this decision clearly undoing some of the work in building bilateral relations.

This diplomatic spat serves to highlight the real impact of a transitioning geo-political landscape on international development assistance. South Africa is a part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping of countries, who in their last summit held in Durban (March), continued their discussion on the creation of a BRICS development bank. Against this backdrop perhaps it is not surprising that there has been a reassessment of South Africa’s receiving of ODA, not only by the UK but by the EU although the EU has not, as yet, withdrawn support. This also comes as a result of declining development assistance from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, which has fallen consecutively since 2010.

South Africa is not the only country within BRICS to have ODA support ‘terminated’. On the 9th of November 2012, Justine Greening announced that India would no longer receive ODA from the UK by 2015. Here, as in the case of South Africa, ‘aid’ would be replaced by ‘sharing expertise, supporting innovation and building skills’ as well as encouraging trade. As ODA becomes increasingly uncertain for the large emerging economies of the BRICS, these countries will not only have to ‘talk-the-talk’ on development, but ‘walk-the- walk’ in taking the lead in their own development and in their development partnerships internationally. These development partnerships are crucial as they represent the human face of foreign policy, supporting people as they strive for socio-economic development. In South Africa’s case this has been through the African Renaissance Fund, but there has been recognition that more can be done, which has seen the move towards coordinating all of South Africa’s development assistance efforts through the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA) - still to be launched.

Given our current position domestically and internationally there have been mixed reactions to the UK’s decision to withdraw its ODA support by 2015. Some, particularly civil society, are lamenting the loss of funding which has been crucial in supporting democratic initiatives and in undertaking work where there have been gaps in government’s service delivery. On the other hand there are those that indicate that it is important for South Africa to move beyond being a recipient country, relying on ‘handouts’, with the withdrawal of donor assistance ameliorating some of the perceived disjuncture that has faced South Africa as both a receiving and a contributing state to international development assistance.

Yet within the debate on whether South Africa should or should not be receiving ‘aid’, it is going to be those that have no voice who will undoubtedly be the worse effected. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, with many of the most vulnerable continuing to rely on international development assistance. This announcement will hopefully serve as a catalyst for debate in the UK on the importance of ‘aid’ and those it is aimed at assisting; but also for South Africa in addressing its own development , both within the country and through the SADPA, in creating an overarching approach to the governance of development. While the UK will certainly need to conduct its own assessment of the fallout from its announcement, we need to ensure that we do not fail those most vulnerable in society through our own inaction.

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