It’s a relatively small amount, compared to overall international aid spending, but the £20 million fund announced by David Cameron to help Eastern European nations remain free of Putin’s Kremlin is an example of good aid.
Not all aid spending deserves that title – far too much is wasted, consumed by administration in Western charities, stolen by dictators and corrupt officials or, even if it reaches the target, used to meet short-term goals rather than helping recipients towards permanent independence from charity. But this new fund is precisely the kind of thing we should be doing: developing countries to need less of our help in future, preventing crises before they arise and serving British trade and foreign policy goals at the same time.
It’s easy to say that the actions of the British state should only take place here, at home – that our money should be used for making us better off. In many ways it is good advice, but it can also be a false distinction – action abroad can serve our interests.
For a start, free, stable states make good trading partners. We will clearly be better off if Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Bosnia and Serbia are more like Western Europe or the Anglosphere than if they are allowed to become corrupt, backward client-tyrannies of Russia. There’s a good reason you don’t see many products in the shops or meet any people from Abkhazia, Ossetia and Crimea – their lack of democracy, property rights and free speech has made them backwaters, permanently reliant on aid from Moscow with no prospect of a useful economic role for the foreseeable future. Freedom for others is desirable for moral reasons, but it is also in our self-interest.
There’s also the security aspect. If we want to reduce the chances of being dragged into future conflicts then we would do well to help these threatened states become more robust in their own right. Two – Ukraine and Georgia – have already lost large tracts of territory to Russian troops (I recounted my visit to the Georgian line of occupation here, a year ago). All of these countries and more are under regular cyber-attack from an aggressor to the East, and there are signs that Russian espionage in Europe is on a much greater scale than previously thought – in recent days Belgium and Sweden, neither renowned for their belligerency, have both warned of their own problems with spies sent by Moscow. It is far better for us to help develop relatively weak states in Eastern Europe now than to be faced with outright war later on.
So even leaving aside the higher motivations of morality, liberty and neighbourliness, it is in our own best interests to help develop Eastern Europe in this way. But there’s an interesting question – should this just be done there, and is Putin the only threat against whom such a protection is worthwhile?
It’s hardly controversial to say that Islamism is disturbingly powerful at the moment – both ideologically and militarily. If the government’s logic on Russia is that it is worthwhile deploying development spending to contain the Kremlin’s ambitions, surely the same also applies to the struggle against ISIS, AQIM, Boko Haram and others in the Levant, North Africa and West Africa, too? Stronger economies, stronger civil societies and more assertive movements for freedom are arguably even more useful against radical ideologies and insurgent terrorist forces than they are against Putin’s rather more straightforward money- and land-grabbing tyranny.