Aid to Somerset: Can we do better than comparing vulnerable populations?



Flooding on the Somerset Levels. ©nickserabi / creative commons

Flooding on the Somerset Levels.
©nickserabi / creative commons

“SPEND OUR FOREIGN AID ON BRITISH VICTIMS OF FLOODING” the front page of the Daily Mail exclaims, citing calls from a minority of MPs. The article goes on to outline their arguments that UK taxpayer money should be diverted from official development assistance to help flood victims and prevent further disasters in the UK.

“We’ve got to make sure we look after our own at this stage.  Foreign aid is good, but it is wasted,” states Neil Paris, the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton. Ian Liddell-Grainger, the Conservative MP for Bridgewater in Somerset is quoted as saying: “We send money all over the world, now we need to give people down here the hope that they will get what they need”.

Arguments such as these create a false debate, where we are forced to make direct comparisons between the suffering of people in Somerset and those in developing countries. In the accompanying comment piece, the Mail describes victims of the floods as “living in the most appalling Third World squalor”.

Such empty metaphors are unfair to both parties. They deny people the right, in their time of hardship, to experience their suffering within their own frame of reference. The reader is refused a real insight into the experiences of the UK flood victims, while the varied realities of people living in developing countries are homogenised and disregarded. We are encouraged to consider the needs of both groups out of context, without reflecting on whether their circumstances are chronic or acute, their wider economic and social status and the capacity of different governments to offer support.

It is these obvious contradictions which make the link between the two examples so inappropriate. The comparison is insensitive, but it also encourages us to engage in an unhelpful discourse, which is framed in a dangerous and irresponsible way.

The reader is presented with a simplified scene – a boxing ring with the flood victims of Somerset squaring up against the anonymized citizens of developing countries, all desperate to get their hands on one pot of cash.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Tory MP for North East Somerset, is quoted for the blue corner stating: “We need to make sure that money comes straight to the West Country. We’ve got to rebuild coastal defences and railways”. We don’t get to hear from a spokesperson of the red corner, where people are left voiceless and faceless.

The Mail concludes that: “Instead of wasting more money overseas, this nation’s charity should be re-directed to those suffering real and seemingly unending misery at home”.

This debate is false. It tries to establish, in the best traditions of scapegoating, a link between the two regions based on no clear logic. In doing so, it precludes a genuine insight into the problems in Somerset and discounts the needs of the communities receiving overseas aid.

The article raises the issue that dredging at Somerset Levels, which it estimates would have cost a mere £4.5million, could have helped prevent the disaster. However, by comparing this to the total aid budget, rather than investigating the real reasons this wasn’t carried out, the Mail does its readers in Somerset a disservice. It would be surprising if it comes to light that the budget for this work was diverted to DfID at the last minute.

On the same day, The Guardian asserted that there are serious questions to be asked about the effects of farming subsidies, which may encourage land clearing and increase vulnerability to flooding. In the Mail, the distraction of questioning aid spending prevents the reader from making the necessary enquiries to hold significant government policies to account.

Alongside the reports of suffering in the West Country, we are presented with a list of aid spending which has targeted flood prone areas in Mozambique, Bangladesh and Colombia. Giving a list of development budgets does not increase our understanding of the validity of these programmes. There are many people, even amongst the supporters of overseas aid, who would agree that this money is sometimes misspent, but here the reader is denied true insight into the debate around which aid works.

Writing on the Spectator blog in response to the Daily Mail article, Fraser Nelson outlines how OECD definitions of aid make it impossible to divert this money to victims in Somerset, thus highlighting the disingenuous nature of the calls from these MPs.

Nelson uses the opportunity to argue that aid targets reduce the public’s willingness to donate to international charities, therefore reducing the overall amount donated to developing countries. Many people would argue that such targets establish a commitment and stability that charitable giving cannot. However, at least the contribution from Nelson initiates a debate focussed on the political economy of international cooperation.

The Daily Mail article helps to create a false dichotomy between environmental spending in the UK and overseas aid. In so doing, it avoids the real issues. It also eclipses the broader issue of climate change which may be the more fruitful link to explore between the problems in Somerset and many developing countries.

Simplified and sensationalist discourses such as these obscure the wider and more productive conversation that needs to be had about the many ways in which living standards in the UK and developing countries interact. By focussing, shallowly, on the role of aid, without considering the impact of trade, political influence, economic policy and culture, we are drawn into a superficial and incomplete conversation.

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Richard Moran is a journalist with an interest in development and social justice. He tweets as @RichardMMoran


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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