LAST year, I met a sister-in-law whose existence had been a recent surprise.
The story is complicated, and mostly irrelevant. When she came to stay between jobs she talked a little one night about her work, chiefly about her time in Haiti as a field organiser with Medecins Sans Frontieres after the 2010 earthquake, and about the business of aid.
As I write, this sister-in-law, a nurse by vocation, is somewhere in Lebanon with Save The Children, attempting to cope with the streams of Syrian refugees who arrive, day upon day, as a consequence of the failure of the "international community" to deal with the Assad regime. It's not a job for which I would volunteer. Nor would I presume to speak for anyone doing that work.
I can guess, though, what thousands of British workers for dozens of NGOs around the world will have to say when they hear that David Cameron fancies spending part of his £10 billion aid budget on "peacekeeping and other defence-related operations". They will say: "That's the kind of talk that gets us killed."
It is not a good idea to be identified with the British state or its military establishment in certain of the world's hell-holes. For those who seek to comfort the afflicted, it is crucially important to be seen as non-aligned, impartial and untainted. The rule has been abused often enough, but aid is supposed to be a reflection of human need, not of some government's foreign policy.
Cameron's supporters would call that naive. Their favourite example is Sierra Leone, where the rebuilding of an army with British assistance is said to have led to the rebuilding of a country. Iraq and Afghanistan are not paraded in the same light, for some reason, but let that pass. To aid a country is, surely, to aid it in every particular, whether the need is humanitarian, political, or military. If donor and recipient benefit, where's the harm?
Equally, critics of conventional aid will tell you that it does more harm than good. It creates dependency and corruption; sometimes it feeds warlords; sometimes it hinders the ineffable work of the market; sometimes it distorts local trade and prevents self-help. It becomes disorganised – why so many NGOs? – and preposterous. Why would Britain give money it can ill-afford to a country like India that boasts of space missions and nuclear weapons?
It is also argued, here and there, that the emergency-response posture of the "aid industry" blinds us to reality. Billions poured into this week's affecting tragedy merely sustain an atrocity auction. Who has first bid when starving babies attract a fragment of the world's attention? And how is this the best way to put countries and continents on the road to stability?
In unguarded moments, those writing Cameron's speeches would probably tell the NGOs to grow up. No aid has ever come without strings. The charities understand politics, national and international, perfectly well. They have been compromised, and have compromised themselves often enough; not least in Afghanistan, where it is near-impossible to operate as a Western organisation without the support of Western governments.
There are plenty of people in Cameron's Tory party, meanwhile, who fail to understand his determination to reserve 0.7% of gross national income for international aid. In hard times, a lot of voters are probably equally baffled. Where does charity begin? Why is there a moral responsibility to pour money into programmes that seem merely to support cycles of war and famine?
The clever sorts in Downing Street would probably say, therefore, that Cameron has done a clever thing. Tie aid to foreign policy and you keep the back benches and the voters happy. You get to spend part of that £10 billion averting the embarrassment of further cuts to your military. Your government becomes the new best friend of any regime you have assisted. Everybody's happy.
You can say these things. You can say, as Cameron last week said in India, that: "We have our moral responsibilities for tackling poverty around the world. We also have our national-security responsibilities for mending conflict states and helping with development around the world." You can juggle imperatives all you like. But don't call military operations aid.
Cameron's allies have their answers to that objection. One is simple, if not simplistic: we can't help everyone. Like it or not, choices must be made. A second answer is political: no government has ever treated international aid as a charity box. New Labour used its aid effort as an instrument of foreign policy – Sierra Leone being a prime example – long before Cameron came to power.
A third, more sophisticated response is to say a Western government with few enough friends in the non-white world has earned little credit for its aid. Brutally, we give and they, some of them, still hate us. In other words, there are better, more intelligent uses for that £10bn. Each answer is delivered in the clear, certain voice of pragmatism.
It's not the most attractive sound. Since I had no desire to interrogate the sister-in-law on first acquaintance, I never did ask her why she does the work she does. Perhaps the fact that she is a nurse was the beginning and end of an answer. Perhaps she has never examined her motives. All I know is she is under no illusions about the complications and compromises bound up in the word "aid". Cameron could not, I think, say the same.
Some people in NGOs, I know, accept the duties implicit in faith. Some recognise a moral responsibility for humanity that transcends governments. Some, a lot of them, work in defiance of such forces. Few would recognise a defence deal as a humanitarian gesture. Training our proxy armies to fight other proxy armies – "security, demobilisation and peacekeeping", in the Whitehall jargon – tends to lead to the wars from which refugees flee and in which children starve.
The idea that there must always be something in it for us is hard to justify, you might have thought, when it issues from a good Christian type such as Cameron.
Aid is given because it is needed, not because you expect a return. The honest alternative is to say, as the Prime Minister's bolder MPs would say, that it's our £10bn to spend as we see fit, and to hell – or thereabouts – with the immiserated masses of some sandpit of which we know little.
Fine; just don't call it aid. Don't use it as an excuse to switch money to the military and then to an arms industry that – by a remarkable coincidence – so often creates the need for real aid. Who made the guns driving the refugees into my sister-in-law's camp? In the case of Syria, the buck stops with Russia, but the Kremlin no doubt calls its arms shipments aid. Britain is one of the biggest players in the weapons industry, and one of the world's biggest suppliers of humanitarian assistance to the downtrodden. I wonder what the connection could be.
Cameron crosses a linguistic line in order to ford a moral torrent. He believes that if he calls defence deals aid he has solved a problem. Perhaps he has, for himself. Not for the NGOs, however, not for those who give to their work, and not for those who need their help.
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