UK Foreign Aid: Don’t be Distracted by the ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’

Sam Peters
6 min readFeb 4, 2021

This article was originally published on 6th August 2017 at Jericho Online. Reproduced here with full permissions.

England’s Spice Girls once sang ‘will this déjà vu never end?’, but it is the ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’ — a five-piece girl band named Yegna — who have again returned to UK headlines in recent weeks with the perennial and contentious topic of foreign aid. Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement that Britain will preserve its commitment to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on foreign aid has sparked outrage across certain sections of the country, with nearly 60% of the British public now wanting foreign aid reduced or scrapped.

Claims of grossly misspent aid include ‘sponsoring the Ethiopian Spice Girls’, as asserted by Jacob Rees-Mogg MP on political panel show Question Time, helping fuel perceptions of frivolous spending. Indeed, the Department for International Development (DfID) will soon gain another 155 staff to administer aid — one of only three government departments to grow under austerity. A consensus seems to be growing that this money would be better spent on tackling rising poverty in the UK.

Even for those who believe in maintaining the UK’s aid budget, these are tough arguments to counter. Despite recent u-turns on austerity, living standards and wages have continued to worsen for many, and £13bn could certainly be usefully invested in the UK in some form. However, this is where the narrative begins to unravel — why would a government that has seemingly shown little regard for the welfare of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens be concerned with protecting aid for those abroad?

World leaders gather for photos at the 2017 G20 Hamburg summit. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

May provided a clue as to the government’s aid intentions at July’s G20 summit in Hamburg, defending DfID spending of £30m on private insurance policies against natural disaster in Africa. Newspapers and Conservative MPs jostled to question why taxpayer money would be spent on possible future disasters abroad despite the government’s lacklustre response to major UK floods over the last decade. The official response included reassurance that ‘British-based insurance companies will benefit from foreign aid investment’. And benefit they certainly will — as with all insurance policies, the sums have been done to statistically ensure profit for these companies, meaning the scheme could be seen as a £30m giveaway of taxpayer money which is mathematically extremely unlikely to be matched by payouts to disaster-hit countries.

But £30m is a small fraction of the roughly £13bn aid budget — surely a drop in the ocean compared to the good done overall? There are indeed instances of aid money being wisely spent, even in projects much maligned by the press. The ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’ are one such example — far from “sponsoring foreign pop groups”, this was actually a £5.2m investment in ‘Girl Effect’, an NGO “combating forced child marriage, violence, teen pregnancy, migration and school drop-out” in Ethiopia through music and dance. Yegna, the girl band created by the NGO, has reached 8.5m people in Ethiopia’s north-west Amhara Region, around half the population.

Surveys by the charity suggest three quarters of young female listeners have been inspired to return to school, an incredible figure in an area where 60% of women have received zero education and 74% of girls become child brides. Crucially, 95% of young male listeners say they would object to forced child marriage, paving the way for rapid shifts in cultural norms and prospects for girls and boys in the region.

Shepherd children in Amhara Region. The region’s population is 89% rural, and even children with access to education will have on average just four hours’ teaching per day. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This project has now lost its UK funding, no doubt thanks in part to the sensationalisation of the story by sections of the media and figures such as Rees-Mogg. DfID claims a ‘programme review’ forced the rethink, but a spokesperson for Girl Effect countered that “DfID has consistently recognised Yegna’s impact, achieving an A grade in DfID’s annual evaluation for the last three consecutive years”.

However, a broader overview of UK foreign aid suggests many projects fall along similar lines to the £30m insurance scheme, angled towards subsidising British companies regardless of — or in some cases, against — the interests of the very people we imagine should benefit from aid money. Before even leaving the country, significant proportions of the budget flow to UK consultants for ‘advisory services’. The largest of these, Adam Smith International (ASI), has received nearly half a billion pounds to consult in the last five years, more than double the total DfID spend on tackling HIV/AIDS. Invariably, these consultancies advise privatisation and neoliberal economic reform in developing countries.

This, then, explains why DfID has supported such ‘aid’ projects as building elite boarding schools in Mauritius, luxury shopping centres in Kenya or private gated communities in El Salvador, where nearly 40% of the population live below the national poverty line. The stock response to criticism of these projects is that they create jobs for local people, but it is hard to see how communities benefit from, for example, the £1bn ASI-led programme to privatise Nigeria’s electricity sector, resulting in immediate price hikes of 45%.

The Protea Ikeja hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, where rooms start at $400 a night, is one of countless CDC investments. The CDC is the UK’s Development Finance Institution, overseen by DfID. Photo credit: Protea

Perhaps the best example of UK foreign aid subsidising global corporations is the ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’. DfID has spent £600m promoting the scheme, claiming it will lift 50m African people out of poverty by 2022 through enabling corporate investment in African food production and markets. Ten African countries and 50 multinational companies — including Monsanto, Unilever and Cargill — have signed up to the deal. However, this ‘aid’ is conditional — participating nations must liberalise land, seed, trade and labour rules.

Smallholding farmers across Africa currently produce 70% of the continent’s food while creating local jobs, upholding environmental standards and preserving seed diversity crucial in tackling adverse growing conditions, but the New Alliance has already criminalised and displaced thousands of farmers with inadequate or no compensation, substituting smallholdings with vast single-species expanses of non-native cash crops for export, such as tobacco. Thousands of jobs are replaced with a few unskilled, low-paid positions in preparing harvests for sale abroad with profits mainly remaining with the companies involved, while subsequent food shortages are relieved with subsidised imports from abroad (such as US Food Aid), further deepening these countries’ dependence on aid and weakening their capacity for self-determination and development.

A farmer works on a smallholding in East Africa. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Already there have been countless claims of land-grabbing, threats of violence, seed privatisation, habitat and soil destruction, water and air pollution, failure to deliver promised infrastructure improvements, unfair labour practices, and more from Ghana to Tanzania. The former UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, Prof. Olivier de Schutter, labelled the New Alliance “seriously deficient in a number of areas”. The programme is just one example of many ways in which developing countries lose £24 in net outflows for every £1 they receive in foreign aid.

Far from opposing the funding of ‘Ethiopian Spice Girls’, the domestic outrage levelled at foreign aid should be focused on the subsidising of big business by the taxpayer, this time via an underhand narrative of ‘moral responsibility’ that purports to help struggling developing countries while instead continuing the legacy of Empire by promoting UK corporate interests. Global development can take place while stimulating, rather than stifling, self-determination and rights — but with DfID quietly quadrupling the aid channelled through its ‘private equity arm’ and planning to leverage aid to ‘win friends abroad before Brexit’, we are unlikely to see a directional change for UK foreign aid any time soon. The answer to the question ‘why do government ministers care more about the poor abroad than at home?’ is therefore quite simple — they don’t.



Sam Peters

Architect by training, critical care researcher by trade, and activist by nature. Mainly write on environmental/social/political issues from a green/left angle.