November 23, 2020 - 10:47am

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called on the British government to reconsider proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget. His comments follow on from reports that the cash-strapped UK Treasury is considering ending the commitment to spend 0.7% of British GDP annually on international development.

“Our generosity and strategic input has genuinely changed lives and communities for the better,” Welby told The Observer. “In his teaching, Jesus tells us we mustn’t limit our concept of neighbour simply to those close by to us. We need to heed that message in the tough times as well as the good.” While Welby’s intentions are doubtless good, his endorsement of government as a vector for charitable work raises some troubling implications.

It should scarcely need saying that governments aren’t charities. As such, they don’t do charity; they do politics. In his criticism of the proposed cuts, Tony Blair stated this baldly: aid, he said, “has been a great British soft power achievement. It isn’t about charity. It’s enlightened self-interest.”

Last year I wrote about ‘policy laundering’, the practice of governments funding NGOs to lobby government for things government wanted to do anyway. It’s apt that Blair should be among the first to intervene on hearing the Treasury’s aid plans: one senior NGO staffer told me recently that it was under Blair that policy laundering began in earnest. Government grants to development charities skyrocketed; the price was a strong government hand in shaping charities’ campaigning priorities.

Perhaps Welby takes the view that such political co-opting of charity is acceptable provided it does good as well. But what he misses here is the fact that as voluntary civil society activities become dependent on state pump-priming, top-down political objectives do not so much complement as replace civil society ones.

If the public thinks something is the government’s job, they’ll stop doing it themselves. We were snowed in a few years ago and lived on a little housing estate served by a private road. My husband took a shovel and started clearing a path to the main road, only for one woman to appear in her doorway and say: “About time the council did something”. In effect, by calling for government to take centre stage in the nation’s charitable activities, Justin Welby is calling for the continued marginalisation of his own institution’s efforts.

If Welby wants the Tories to maintain a strong foreign policy focus he should say so, and explain why this should take the form of development aid. But if he thinks it’s right for Britain to send money overseas to help poorer countries, he should have the courage to call on his flock to tithe.

That he has not done so suggests strongly that Welby would prefer the latter, but doesn’t really believe he has enough of a flock any more for such charitable efforts to have a meaningful impact. This would imply the grim possibility that he sees no role for a modern Church of England except as yet another vehicle for that class of elite moral nodding-dogs who cheerlead for the imposition of state-sponsored liberalism on a fragmented and ambivalent civil society.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.