The ‘great’ British potential in development and aid

This is a guest post by Dan Smith. Dan is an Engineer working with sanitation companies in frontier markets. He is also a good friend who blogs here. You can follow Dan on twitter at @dpksmith.

Everything about this image is ridiculous. From the fact that the British Embassy in Myanmar feels it’s necessary to persuade people how ‘great’ Britain is, to the idea that using posters resplendent with outdated nationalistic iconography is a good one.

All of it smacks of desperation.

A friend of mine recently sent me the picture from Yangon. My friend asked if this was how the British Government treated all of the countries we’d previously undermined. Looking at it historically and considering that my friend is Austrian; this comment is somewhat ironic but shows how our colonial history still pervades today.

The Austrians and Germans don’t cling to the dying embers of Empire, so why do we?

The simple fact is that the British Empire was an immoral occurrence over a generation ago, yet 60 years on it is still acceptable to promote the UK using imagery and terminology from that period alluding to the fact that we’ve changed. Whilst our pernicious foreign policy and the actions of British companies ensure that we’re still acting in a similar manner. Why can’t we move on from our history and start leading by example?

Our Government advertises the UK with outdated iconography whilst telling expats to go home. Our society bickers amongst itself about how best to manage our own sustainability whilst our international companies continue to steal resources from other countries as they always have done. All off this is white washed with propaganda about how great we are and as such our entrepreneurs come up with solutions for luxury abandon.

Perhaps this should change?

The Africa Progress Report 2013 paints a damning picture of powerful companies influencing kleptocratic governments in order to procure the rights to extract resources from their countries. The sharp end of the wedge highlighted in the criticism of the recent WTO Trade Agreement that this promotes the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals, poor or otherwise. All of which suggests that companies from rich countries are still operating in a similar fashion to the way various Royal Charter companies did back in the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is proof that British companies are complicit in such actions, such as the Vedanta Mining Corporation that wants to mine a culturally significant area of India or the shooting of 34 miners at the Marikana mine in South Africa owned by Lonmin. Closer to home there has been a devastating yet largely overlooked case where the British police have colluded with large construction firms to blacklist 3,200 people viewed as “leftwing or troublesome”.

Staying at home, shallow arguments such as this and this by the George Monbiot (a journalist that at least has his ‘heart in the right place’) demonstrates the divide between the middle class left, who paint themselves as the proletariat, and who the left perceive as the evil land owning bourgeoisie farmers. Yet most of our home grown challenges, such as sustainable energy security, are smothered by Government backed jingoistic promotions (such as some woman marrying a posh bloke and having a baby) to persuade everybody that we’re ‘great’.

If you do a quick search for people making change in the world you’ll find a plethora of young entrepreneurs in Africa developing businesses to fix many of the problems they see in front of them. Yet if you look for young British ones, more established ones, or look to entrepreneurial promotion such as Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice, you find people providing low cost throw away consumables, luxury goods, weaponry and food for students; as if there aren’t more pressing issues than creating maximum profit. Why are we still promoting profit over environmental and social performance?

In the UK we are a knowledge economy. We hold some of the best universities in the world; we have world leading research institutes; and some of the most respected consulting agencies. Why can’t we use this potential to lead the way in sustainable development rather than clinging to outdated dogma?

If the government really wants to increase foreign trade then perhaps it should start by regulating and prosecuting companies that are acting immorally and often illegally in other people’s countries rather than putting up posters. That would be a large step forward in changing the image of Britain. Whilst it’s doing that it could remove all of the Empiresque imagery from our foreign policy documentation and create strategies that work with people of other countries rather than against them.

Admittedly, social enterprise is supported in the UK through the creation of Big Society Capital and Social Enterprise UK. But why does this have to be at the loss to Government public sector? We could do both by going after the financial sector with the Tobin Tax – which is being pursued across Europe. Yet our government lacks both the teeth and the will to go after either the banks or international corporations.

If we could develop Triple Bottom Line businesses out of old neo-colonial corporations and promote “sustainability entrepreneurs” and “intrapreneurs” to meet our own challenges and set high sustainability standards in the UK. Then the rest of the world would look to us as leaders in sustainable development.

With external trade based on global sustainability rather than individual profiteering we wouldn’t need to tell anybody how “great” we still are.


Filed under Economics, History

3 responses to “The ‘great’ British potential in development and aid

  1. Pingback: “Great” British Potential | Try Stumble and Try Again

  2. Hi Alison, thanks for the response and I’m sorry you took offence. Did you read the entire article because you seemed to stop at the third paragraph?

    My main point is about current affairs rather than history. As I said, such as mining company operations in lean countries. Did you know that anonymous companies in the British Virgin Isles are being (legally) used by corrupt governments and mining corporations to fleece the people of various African countries of billions of dollars of mineral wealth that could be used for their own development?

    That’s not very “Great” is it?

    I know that companies from other countries and in other countries are doing the same thing but, as with Empires, that doesn’t excuse it from being wrong.

    You’re quite right though, Imperialism is not a solely British past time but excusing its immorality as being contextually fashionable is not the point and is highly offensive to the countries that were subjugated.

    Point is that we profited from our Empire but we are a different country now and, as you say, have plenty to be proud about. On the other hand, poorer countries are and were poor for a plethora of reasons. But if we don’t clamp down on the companies still acting as they did in Colonial times then we’ll continue to be one of those reasons.

    I’m sure you don’t want Britain to be a reason for continued global inequality. That’s not very “Great” either.

    If we changed our mindset from “Great Britain”, with purely profit driven objectives for us, to “Sustainable Britain”, with environmental and social objectives for all, then we’d be able to lead sustainable development, trade and investment that benefited all people and reduce global inequality.

    That would be “Great”!


  3. Alison Eccles

    What a misery-fest! Why on earth is using our flag ‘outdated’. It is our current flag. A phrase such as “Innovation is Great” does not have any link to the Empire or any such historic entity. It is simply an advert. Perhaps not the most brilliant, but certainly not the offensive thing you paint it to be.

    What is offensive, is your total disgust and disregard for British and world history. Calling the empire an “immoral occurrence” is showing wanton disregard for historical context or intellect. Whilst no one claims the British Empire was a bastion of freedom, it arose at a time when any country with a modicum of power attempted to gain an empire of its own. Please read up on world history and you will discover that every country / kingdom at some time or other had a pop at another one. It is only in the last 50 years that this kind of imperialism has abated. It is because the British Empire was the largest and one of the most recent to end that it is foremost in your mind.

    In fact, taking your example of Myanmar – having some knowledge of history will make you realise that they themselves were at the centre of many an empire, such as the Konbaung Dynasty.

    I suggest that you have some hang ups about where you are from, viewing the rest of the world as some sort of international garden of Eden that was only ruined once the evil British decided to come and conquer everywhere. The truth, unfortunately for you, is vastly more complicated and nuanced.


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