The Trumpification of foreign aid

Donald Trump’s charitable activities have received long-overdue scrutiny in recent weeks, with the focus largely on their legality – for example, his foundation made political contributions, which contravenes tax regulations – and the fact that he personally contributed relatively little to charity. But as Ezra Klein recently pointed out, the Trump Foundation’s activities reveal a deeper point about Trump’s character: “What strikes me…is just how uninterested Donald Trump was in helping people”. He points out that for Trump, his foundation was a way to make social connections, and develop business contacts – it was, above all, a form of personal advancement. There was little sense of an opportunity to do good through his immense resources. Klein draws a stark contrast with the Clinton Foundation, which not only very clearly sought to improve the lot of the worst off in the world, but can have strong claim to have succeeded in doing so.

Klein is right: we should be appalled by Trump’s lack of concern for helping others. Yet such thinking is sadly more common than we might hope. There are echoes of Trump’s thinking in British Development Secretary Priti Patel’s recent vow to redirect aid money to “make it deliver for our national interest”. Patel is relatively new in post, and while there are certainly grounds for fearing the worst, it may turn out that this is rhetoric rather than a substantial shift in policy. Patel’s explanation of what she meant by the national interest in this context to a parliamentary select committee turned out to be the rather vague, and now standard, line that “disasters, conflicts and diseases do not adhere to national borders, and we need to act before those types of problems and crises grow and become a direct threat to us” – in other words, aid is win-win.

But a more ominous reading of Patel’s words returns the spectre of tied aid and using development policy to promote British exports. Such measures would be Trumpian indeed. There is something deeply distasteful about the sort of person who sees another in great need and whose first thought is how to profit from the situation. Turning to the Oxfam fundraiser and asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ is just repellent.

You might object that I am just using Trump here as a rhetorical bogey man, that self-interest of this sort is not uncommon, and that just because Trump does it doesn’t mean its a bad thing. You may be right. Or it may be that Trump stretches our vices to extremes and so highlights our moral flaws.

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