Another day, another year, and yet more grappling with the truth in the public eye.
2018 was no stranger to showdowns between government and media — fake news, anyone? — and in Britain, a lot of that debate raged around the issue of foreign aid.
And, not for the first time, the Department for International Development (DfID) has had to respond to a “factually inaccurate” headline in the mainstream press.
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The Mail on Sunday ran a headline which read: “£16m of aid from Britain helped fund ‘rigged’ poll.”
It reported that the British government spent £16 million on a project called Strengthening Political Participation in Bangladesh, intended to boost “locally led election observation and support civil society to demand more accountable politics” — and linked that to the recent election in the country that was plagued by violence and accusations of fraud.
However, the UK government released a statement asserting that “no UK aid was given to the Government of Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi Election Commission, or any Bangladeshi political parties for this election.”
And it hit back, arguing that UK aid has already lifted millions out of poverty, and will continue to support people in Bangladesh to obtain a “more stable, prosperous, and democratic country.”
Today (6 January) the Mail on Sunday published a story alleging UK aid helped to fund a 'rigged' poll in Bangladesh. This headline is factually inaccurate. No UK aid was given to the Government of Bangladesh for this election. https://t.co/z2BKxjA1Sv— DFID (@DFID_UK) January 6, 2019
The December elections in Bangladesh saw a landslide victory for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, winning reelection for her third consecutive term. The Guardian reports that her ruling coalition won a staggering 96% of the vote, while a BBC correspondent observed ballot boxes already filled before voting began.
Widespread claims of vote-rigging led to violence, with local police confirming to CNN that at least 18 people had been killed on election day in clashes between opposition protesters and supporters of the government.
Hasina previously promised to completely eradicate extreme poverty by 2021, defined as living on less than $1.90 (£1.50) a day. In 2016, 12.9% of the country’s population lived in such conditions — down from 34.4% in 2000, according to the World Bank. But despite GDP rising by over 150% in the last decade, the UK government said that 40 million Bangladeshis still live in poverty.
“The UK deplores the acts of intimidation and unlawful violence that have taken place during the campaign period, and we are deeply concerned by the incidents that led to so many deaths on polling day,” said a DfID spokesperson.
“We recognise that change won’t happen overnight, but UK aid is supporting the many Bangladeshis who are determined to strengthen democracy in their country. Our support is enabling Bangladeshi women and young people to engage in politics, making communities more resilient to conflict, and monitoring levels of political violence.”
The article has since been updated on the Mail Online website with a new headline.
Britain spends 0.7% of its Gross National Income (GNI) on UK aid. In 2017, that equated to just over £14 billion.
And DfID, in charge of investing that money, was deemed by a report last year to have one of the best records for transparency and accountability in the world.
But British newspapers continue to publish stories in an attempt to discredit the incredible work accomplished by UK aid around the world — from nurturing the health of pregnant women and their babies to fighting female genital mutilation.
For example, another piece published by the Daily Mail on Saturday criticised the government for "handing £1.5 billion to the world's most corrupt countries." However, there was not a single mention of the impact of such intervention in countries ravaged by conflict, famine, epidemics, and droughts. Corruption and inequality make each other worse — and UK aid helps to break this cycle.
The UK aid budget exists to help the 736 million people around the world who live in extreme poverty. Even though DfID’s record on efficiency is among the finest in government, we agree that it needs to improve to help as many people as possible — and for the International Development Committee (IDC) that means giving DFID oversight of its budget.
When UK aid is spent by other governnmental departments, it sometimes means that investment is less transparent. To ensure that the budget focuses on poverty alleviation, the IDC recommended last June that DfID needs to have final sign off on its spending.
“DfID is a world leader in delivering high-quality aid that helps to transform the lives of the poorest people on earth," said Kirsty McNeill, executive director of policy, advocacy, and campaigns for Save the Children, in a statement last year.
“But as spending by other departments has increased, the proportion spent in the poorest countries, where it’s needed most, and on vital services such as health care, has declined,” McNeill added. “DfID should be able to help other departments meet the high standards it sets.”