The papers this week have been full of stories about the SNP’s plans for foreign aid from an independent Scotland. The Herald led with a story entitled “Yousaf plans £1.5 billion foreign aid budget”, while the Scotsman went for the slightly more inflammatory headline ‘Scottish independence: International aid budget would soar to hundreds of millions’ with the clear implication that this compared to the modest £9 million the devolved Scottish Government currently spends directly on foreign aid.
The headlines were designed to make people think that under independence the Scottish government would be diverting hundreds of millions of pounds away from Scots, increasing our foreign aid over 100-fold. Opposition MSPs claimed such move would mean spending cuts at home or tax rises in order to fund the increased international aid budget.
You need to delve a little deeper into the articles to find the truth.
The crucial fact is that currently, the small budget the Scottish Government spends on aid is in addition to the money we already contribute as part of the UK. At present, the UK spends £8.7 billion on foreign aid and intends to meet the UN target of 0.7% of GDP in 2013, a move which would see the figure increase to £11.3 billion.
Scotland already pays for roughly 8.4% of this budget in line with our population split of the UK. In 2013 that would mean £949 million, to which we can add Holyrood’s own £9m, giving a total Scottish foreign aid budget in 2013 of £958 million. This is what we already spend within the Union, so the Scotsman’s headline is misleading – our aid spending is ALREADY “hundreds of millions”, not about to “soar to” such heights.
Using the last available full sets of figures, Scottish GDP was £149bn in 2011 (including a geographical share of revenue from oil and gas). Using the UN’s aid target figure of 0.7%, independent Scotland would therefore be paying out fractionally over £1bn in foreign aid, an increase of roughly 9% on present levels. But Yousaf also stated that we would try to exceed this minimum UN target by spending 1% of GDP, taking the total to the Herald’s £1.5bn – almost a 50% increase on the present sum.
It sounds like a tough sell, with the Holyrood opposition insisting that we already can’t afford universal services. So why would we want to spend that extra £500m, and more importantly how could we afford to if we did?
Beyond the basic moral imperative to aid those less fortunate than ourselves, Scotland (like any country) will have interests that lie outwith our own borders in an interdependent world. One of the main objectives of foreign policy is to get other nations to adopt your policy goals as their own. There are many benefits to utilising international aid to achieve foreign policy, and they’re typified by the example of Norway (yep, THOSE guys again) and their use of “soft power”.
These programs can often influence without needing a militaristic approach, removing the animosity that military power can create. (And at the same time reducing a state’s military expenditure, freeing more money to pay for the aid.) In order to meet our international goals, an independent Scotland could use its potential in various ways, with power being defined as the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes Scotland wants.
There are several ways to affect the behaviour of others.
- Coerce them with threats.
- Induce them with payments.
- Attract or co-opt them.
There are obvious benefits in being able to attract others to your cause, frame the debate and set the agenda when acting in international relations, and “soft power” can achieve that. Skilful leaders have always understood that attractiveness stems from credibility and legitimacy. Power is not the sole preserve of the barrel of a gun; even the most brutal dictators have relied on attraction as well as fear.
For small countries that are by necessity less militaristic, “soft power” can allow them to punch well above their weight. After the Cold War, small states had the opportunity to play a more significant role in international peace diplomacy with the removal of the two superpowers as a prism through which all actions were viewed. This allowed smaller countries to become involved in the resolution of conflicts, an opportunity seized enthusiastically by the Norwegians.
In 1990 Norway became active in the peace process in Guatemala before successfully negotiating the 1993 Oslo Accords (a milestone in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict), and more recently they were active in helping conclude a temporary ceasefire in 2002 in Sri Lanka. These actions put Norway on the map as a successful peace mediator, in which their size was a benefit by removing them as a threat to either side.
By having no perceived great power interests and no means to coerce the parties to a conflict, it made Norway more trusted than larger nations such as the USA or UK. Their intentions being viewed as more legitimate and their involvement non-threatening.
This global brand of trust in the country helps them achieve their own foreign policy goals, by making them an attractive partner to other countries – a stance backed up by their generous foreign aid payments. Norway achieves this worldwide recognition by devoting 1% of its GDP to foreign aid, the same figure the SNP are aspiring to.
We can only hope that an independent Scotland would be as successful in the deployment of “soft power” as Norway has been historically. But one thing seems certain: being a more-trusted, non-threatening and liked global nation means that much less “hard power” is needed.
The SNP’s plans to create a more proportionately-sized post-independence Scottish Defence Force to defend our borders and take part in internationally-sanctioned operations only (rather than aggressive and often unpopular “police actions” like Afghanistan and Iraq) could pay for the increased aid budget with many millions to spare. It seems a profitable goal as well as a noble one.