It was never going to survive the new era of right-wing long knives in government. As soon as the anti-development forces aligned, with Priti Patel in charge of DFID and a concerted Daily Mail campaign of sensationalism and stupidity in full swing, Yegna was doomed. Welcome to the post-truth era of development spending, where it is not development experts who validate projects, but hysterical Little Englanders and their poison pens of slander and misrepresentation.
Yegna had become the battle cry of the anti-development campaign of stupidity and selfishness to defund DFID and the millions of people worldwide who benefit from its lifesaving and life-enhancing aid. Last year, the unholy cabal of UKIP and Conservative politicians, right-wing newspapers and anti-spending pressure groups reinvigorated their long-running campaign, incensed at what they see as British taxpayers’ money being wasted on such frivolous activities as saving people’s lives and helping them from destitution, poverty and disease. Attacked and hounded by this new battlefront of British selfishness and greed, Yegna became the posterchild of this campaign, and was branded a ‘blood-boiling waste of money’. Now Patel’s axe has fallen on its funding.
The problem is, the right-wing press’s articles seriously and deliberately misrepresented Yegna to stir up public discontent. Far from being ‘Ethiopia’s Spice Girls’ Yegna is a group with a serious political purpose that reaches impressionable young Ethiopian women and men through multiple media streams including TV, radio and social media. A boring development lecture in a classroom this is not. Yegna’s message: to impart a positive and progressive narrative of gender equality and fairness to young Ethiopians in a relatable and engaging manner. The group’s music and stories tackle socially-sensitive issues like gender-based violence, early marriage and teenage pregnancy, gender disparities in education and female economic empowerment. We’re not talking “girl power”. We’re talking actual girl power.
Articles were very light on these details. What’s more, while the right-wing press were keen to note that DFID’s watchdog had noted ‘significant concerns’ about the project, it wilfully ignored the fact that these turned out to be unfounded, with the project granted an A grade in DFID’s annual evaluation three years in a row. And the impact of the project is impressive. Eight and a half million people in Ethiopia have heard of Yegna. Three quarters of girls who listened to Yegna reported that the group inspired them to continue their education, while 95% of young male listeners said they would speak out about a girl being forced to marry. At a cost to the British taxpayer of just £1.63 per person, in a country where just 47% of teenage girls are literate and 75% of girls undergo FGM, that doesn’t seem like a particularly huge investment. Now where was that in the Daily Mail’s headlines?
It seems that details inconvenient to an article’s poisonous narrative are no problem for the Daily Mail, The Sun, the Telegraph, and every other low-grade agenda-led newspaper who practically pressed ctrl-c from the Mail’s original. If reality doesn’t fit the agenda, simply leave it out. Yet this sensationalism and misrepresentation are highly illuminating. These have to be the methods the anti-aid crusaders use to undermine Britain’s commitment to the world’s poorest people; “we don’t care about disadvantaged women and girls in Ethiopia” doesn’t have quite the same holier-than-thou chime. But make no mistake, that is what these UKIP, Daily Mail and Little England axe-grinders are saying. Preventing forced marriage and gender-based violence simply doesn’t offer ‘value for money’ in their bleak, heartless and disturbing world.
The saddest part of this is that their entire campaign is based on a big, fat, lie: that if we only defunded DFID, then that money could be spent helping poor down-trodden British people instead. This is a smokescreen; a finger of blame pointing away from right-wing small-state austerity politics that has gutted this country’s social security systems and towards defenceless victims of structural inequality in the developing world. In its gloating front page article, the Daily Mail expressed mock outrage that money could be being spent on Yegna “at a time when social care is in crisis”. Yet the social care crisis is one brought about entirely by a political party consistently idolised and championed by the Daily Mail. The hypocrisy is staggering. Yet for the Mail and its champions, what is important is that if people in Britain are suffering, it is Ethiopian women and girls who must shoulder the blame. As David Nuttall MP, a man who voted to reduce housing benefit, restrict existing unemployment benefits, cut disability and sickness benefits, defund support for people who miss payment of council tax, and prevent public money being spent helping young people into work, told the Daily Mail: “charity begins at home”.
That these people might claim to be charitable is as delusional as it is dangerous. They would happily see not a single penny being spent as foreign aid, nor funding to help Britain’s most marginalised people either. As per usual, “charity begins at home” is the catchphrase of people who have no interest in helping anyone anywhere. It’s telling when Conservative politicians describe foreign aid as a “vanity project”; it means they can’t possibly conceive of a world where someone might help another person for a reason other than to make themselves feel good. Perhaps if David Nutall MP is so desperate to ease the social care crisis, he might consider as part of the ruling party suggesting an end to the needless austerity that crippled it in the first place. Not one penny of extra funding was given to social care in the Autumn Statement. Yet Parliament continues to receive £5.8m per year in alcohol subsidies, more than Yegna’s DFID funds, despite the pernicious and persistent claim that there is not any money to fund social welfare.
The right-wing press have always had it in for development spending. While any normal person might use evidence of wasted money or the whiff of scandal as a method of actually improving the way we help the world’s poorest people, instead these heartless monsters seek to snatch the ladder away from the poorest people instead. Now with Patel at DFID’s helm, the door has been opened wide for the right-wing fox to enter the chicken coop. This is yet another sign that there is no space for experts in Tory Britain. Instead, the Daily Mail lynch mob is in charge of development. How long now before the UK’s commitment to 0.7% of development spending is surely doomed? A 2020 Tory victory and it will be thrown on the bonfire of progressive Britain like all our other dreams of a fairer world.