An investigation launched by BBC One’s Panorama has alleged that British overseas aid money is going towards supporting extremists in Syria.
The programme, “Jihadis you Pay For”, which aired on Monday evening, claims British taxpayers’ money had been diverted to groupsincluding the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra.
The money was supposed to be supporting the Free Syrian Police (FSP), a 3,300-strong mainly unarmed civilian police force, which was launched to restore law and safety to the war-torn country following the Syrian uprising.
But the Panorama investigation claims that some of the money was instead being taken by extremist groups, while some FSP officers themselves had reportedly been working with courts accused of torture and summary executions.
The government has suspended all money supporting the project as a result of the allegations.
For critics, the allegations will provide just another example to hold up in the argument about why the British aid budget should be cut once and for all.
But, for Global Citizen, it’s an example of exactly why our overseas aid budget is, if anything, more important than ever.
The fact that the extremist group Nour al-Din al-Zinki was able to force police officers in Aleppo province to hand over funds to them, according to documents seen by Panorama, shows that projects designed to bring law and order to the people of Syria need even greater support from countries that enjoy the luxury of a functioning justice system.
In one case cited by the programme, two officers of the FSP were present when two women were stoned to death in 2014. That people are still stoned to death should indicate that this is an area of the world that has been devastated by conflict and that needs increased support, rather than being shut out in the cold.
The problem comes down to the same argument that charities have been making for months, if not years, and which came to the forefront again just last month with the publication of the breakdown of the Department for International Development’s 2016 spending.
Just over one-quarter of the UK’s aid budget was shown to have been spent by non-DfID governmental departments — which was a serious red flag for charities and campaigners.
That’s because, while DfID has very high levels of transparency and accountability concerning where money is spent, that isn’t a guarantee for other government departments. That includes the Foreign Office, from where the money that allegedly ended up funding extremists came.
“DfID has very high levels of transparency and accountability that we think should be the norm for all government aid spending, to make sure it’s effective, well-targeted and its top priority remains reaching the world’s poorest people,” said Neil Thorns, director of advocacy at Cafod, the Catholic international development charity.
When aid money is spent by departments that don’t have the accountability and transparency of DfID, mistakes are more frequently made — mistakes like the Syrian allegations — which only serve to give critics a foothold in the argument about UK aid.
Andrew Mitchell MP, the former international development secretary, has spoken out about the Syrian allegations, saying that it was inevitable the FSP would come into contact with extremist groups, and that it should not put the UK off being involved.
“This is an extremely important project devised with the aim of strengthening the FSP in dangerous areas where jihadi groups are in operation,” he said. “That is the whole point. The people involved in the project are extremely brave and should be praised, not pilloried.”
He added: “This work is too important to fall victim to an anti-aid narrative.”
General Adeeb al-Shallaf, founder of the FSP, has also spoken out following the investigation.
“We, the Free Syrian Police, are present on the ground despite all the challenges, be it the armed groups [or] the daily shelling,” said al-Shallaf, who defected from his senior position within Assad’s Syrian government police force when he was ordered to shoot at demonstrators.
Al-Shallaf said that in the last shelling, the police centre in Al-Atarib was hit, and 13 police officers were killed, in addition to civilians.
The UK is one of the only countries in the world which has the commitment to put 0.7% of gross national income towards overseas development spending — in fact, it’s enshrined in UK law.
It’s something we should be proud of. It’s something that shouldn’t be relentlessly under attack from politicians, the press, and the public.
Since 1990, the world has halved the amount of people living in extreme poverty; an achievement that has saved millions of lives. In the same amount of time, we’ve halved the number of children dying before the age of 5.
Thanks to UK aid, we have almost wiped out polio, and by 2020, will have helped save the lives of 1.4 million children who would have died from deadly but preventable diseases. Because of the compassion of the British public, UK aid has helped millions of girls gain an education so they can go on to build strong communities and fruitful economies. Because of UK aid, since 2015, over 27 million people now have access to clean running water. Aid matters, aid works.
Opponents of aid have long claimed money sent overseas to support developing countries instead goes straight into the pockets of corrupt officials — or in this case, terror groups — and that, until this practice is stamped out, we should cut funding to these countries.
The sad fact is that corruption does happen in developing countries (and all countries come to that) and sometimes aid money ends up in the wrong hands, but this doesn’t mean we should stop supporting the innocent people forced to live in the clutches of these officials, or of terror groups.
Otherwise, in the words of Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International UK, we’re only “punishing people twice over.”
“Imagine a town in England,” he wrote, in an article for the Daily Telegraph published in 2016, “which has been devastated by flooding. The government wants to put in a few million pounds both right away, and in the long-term, to clean up and then to rebuild the flood defences.”
“But a couple of years ago, one of the councillors was convicted of corruption,” he continued, “and doubts still linger over some of the others. Do we say to the citizens of the town ‘bad luck, the money would just get stolen, so dip into your own pockets instead’? Of course not.”
Just days after taking up the role of the UK’s international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt set out her vision to “prove that Britain can be proud of its aid.”
“The British people have a global outlook,” she wrote, in an article for the Daily Telegraph. “They are generous, and when they see suffering and injustice they are motivated to act.”
Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN Global Goals to end extreme poverty by 2030. But UK overseas development aid is vital in this fight. You can join us by taking action here, to tell your MP how proud you are of UK aid and call on them to make it as effective as possible.