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Comment: We need to pay attention to the slavery and imperialism in our present, not just our past

Statue symbolising liberation from slavery, Gorée Island, Senegal - Image credit: Sadak Souici / Le Pictorium/Maxppp/PA Images

Comment: We need to pay attention to the slavery and imperialism in our present, not just our past

The recent attention on racism and the Black Lives Matter protests have raised awareness of our country’s shameful history of slavery and imperialism. But we need to remember that it’s not just in the past.

Global estimates put the number of slaves worldwide right now at over 40 million, more than at any point in history, including when slavery was legal.

One in four victims are children and 70 per cent are women and girls. They may be enslaved in child or forced marriage; criminal exploitation; domestic servitude; forced labour in agriculture and fisheries, nail bars, hand car washes, factories and construction; organ harvesting; or sexual exploitation.

Estimates on the number of slaves currently in the UK alone vary from 10,000-13,000 to over 100,000 – part of a global trade thought to be worth $150bn.

What is known for sure, though, is that slavery is taking place across Scotland in the present day, not only in the cities, but in rural areas too.

“Slavery is not just a scar on Britain’s past. It is an open wound in our present. It is not simply confined to our statues, memorials or in our museums. It is a living, breathing nightmare that too many people live with on home soil and around the world every day of their lives,” wrote Christian Guy, CEO of anti-slavery charity Justice and Care in a recent blog post.

And British imperialism has not necessarily been consigned to the history books either.

Two weeks ago, the UK Government announced plans to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Apart from the obvious danger in reforming aid at a time of global crisis, it suggests a move to use it as leverage for UK influence.

Martin Drewry of Health Poverty Action called it taking “British aid back to its colonial roots” and Global Justice Now referred to it as “Empire 2.0”. And these fears are not unfounded.

Boris Johnson made clear in announcing the merger that this was about promoting Britain’s interests, saying it was “an opportunity for us to get value from the huge investments that we make in overseas spending” and making clear there would be a rethink of what counted as aid.

“For too long, frankly, UK overseas aid has been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interests, to the values that the UK wishes to express or to the diplomatic, political and commercial priorities of the Government of the UK,” he said.

A recent inquiry by the House of Commons International Development Select Committee into the effectiveness of UK overseas aid backs up concerns.

While evidence to the committee was positive about DFID’s “globally acknowledged expertise and professionalism”, this was not the case for aid money spent by other departments.

Over a quarter of the aid budget is now spent by departments other than DFID and they have been encouraged to re-categorise existing spend as aid where they can.

The committee found there had been a move away from the core aim of tackling poverty and “accountability for spending aid well appears to have been eroded”.

While in 2018, DFID spent 62.5 per cent of its country-specific aid in the least developed countries, for non-DFID aid, this proportion was 25.7 per cent.

In 2017 the FCO spent £240m on “enabling frontline diplomatic activities”, with no evidence found of the developmental impact of this spending.

The FCO was rated ‘weak’ in terms of having a poverty focus to its spending by the ONE Campaign and 80 per cent of FCO spend was rated amber/red by Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI).

It also failed to meet UK aid transparency targets and was ranked 40th out of 45 global aid donors in the 2018 Aid Transparency Index.

And despite an official policy of aid not being ‘tied’ – required to be spent on goods and services from the country providing the aid – the inquiry found an “extremely high proportion of contracts” being awarded to UK companies: 90 per cent of contracts – including from DFID – were going to UK entities, according to research by ONE.

This should serve as a reminder. While an awareness of our past is important, even more important is attention to what is happening in the present so that we can take action to tackle it – which is where the whole BLM protests began.

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