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It’s not really such a great aid mystery

January 3, 2013

The latest edition of The Spectator carries an opinion piece by Jonathan Foreman entitled The Great Aid Mystery In a diatribe laced with rather tired tropes, and whose style undermines the argument he makes, Foreman’s main points when stripped of rhetoric can be summarised quite simply as:

  • The domestic politics of foreign aid are complex and at times seem rather contradictory
  • The UK’s growing aid budget is suported more by the elite than by the rest of the electorate
  • The size of the UK’s aid budget bears little relation to either the scale of the problem, or our proven ability to achieve successful, sustainable development progress; indeed, it is unclear that enough effective mechanisms exist to deliver the rapidly increasing aid budget successfully
  • The UK’s aid sector is dominated by white and middle class people
  • Some non-white people don’t support all of the claims being made for aid by aid’s proponents
  • Some Conservatives see support for aid as a useful way to detoxify their party’s reputation, while some British people and politicians see UK aid as a way to overcome guilt at aspects of our national past,  like slavery and empire
  • Much UK aid expenditure happens in places where corruption is quite normal, and much aid is thus lost to corruption and theft
  • Aid is to a large degree faith-based, i.e. we have faith it does good, but we can’t be sure
  • Some aid workers are seeking a bit of adventure through their involvement.

Therefore he’d like to see:

  • A review of the 0.7% target
  • A retying of UK aid so more of it is used to buy UK goods and services, thus helping us while we help others
  • Better convergence between aid and other aspects of UK foreign policy
  • More honesty about aid’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Cutting aid from incompetent and/or corrupt recipients and delivery organisations
  • Investment in (UK military) logistics capability, so it can be used in delivering emergency aid
  • A royal commission into how best to give overseas aid.

Strange that when you strip away the rhetoric, most of what he says makes pretty good sense, even to supporters of overseas development aid like myself. Indeed, apart from one or two of the less useful bullet points in his first list, and the idea of using aid money to build UK military logistics capacity in the second, I think I have made pretty much all the points he makes in the past, either here or elsewhere. And I’m a supporter of (good) aid. But because of all the offensive rhetoric, his cogent points risk getting lost.

Foreman’s article reminds me of three things. The first is that by over-hyping the benefits of aid, and not being completely open about its defects, aid supporters have over the years laid themselves open to just this kind of attack. We really must stop being defensive about aid, and admit its limitations. Margot Asquith’s comment that “it is the height of vanity to suppose you can make an honest man of anyone” is partly apropos here: there is a certain degree of vanity in thinking that the problems of underdevelopment elsewhere can be solved by outsiders. But it is only partly apropos: we may not be able to fix other people’s problems for them, but we can certainly offer to help. We must however stop pretending, as happened at Gleneagles, that poverty reduction is a direct line result of just writing bigger cheques. Because it isn’t, and saying it is ultimately discredits aid when people find out they were sold a pig in a poke.

Second, it is really unhelpful when those who want to criticise aid (as much as those who want to protect and defend it against all comers), feel they can discuss all aid as though it were one and the same thing. UK aid covers a multitude of virtues and sins. It provides food and clean water to victims of disasters, education to young children, technical training and buildings for justice systems, and general budget support to poor country governments, to name but a few. Some of the food gets spoilt, while most gets eaten by those who need it. Some of the water remains polluted, while much becomes clean and safe. Some of the education budget goes to build ghost schools, while some goes to provide life-changing opportunities for boys and girls. Some justice systems remain unjust, despite the training and new buildings; in other cases incremental improvements are seen. And budget support to governments gets co-mingled with other aid and tax receipts, some of which are used to good effect, while much is not. This is the reality of aid in difficult environments, and it is good that a stronger light is now being shone on aid both at home and in the places where it is spent, by citizens there. But we should not draw conclusions – as some readers of Foreman’s article will likely have done – that because things aren’t working perfectly, we should stop the whole enterprise. Journalists should perhaps look at specific aspects of aid on their merits, not treat the whole sector as one. The education system in the UK has been dire for decades, but the response was to try and improve education policy, not stop education completely. Aid is imperfect, and can be improved – and in this respect I agree with Foreman that improvements should come before massive budget increases. 0.7% is certainly an arbitrary target, and in my personal view it can wait.

Third, I would add that we need to stop dealing with aid as if it were the only aspect of UK policy which impacts the lives of people in poorer and less well governed environments. David Cameron put it well in his recent letter to the members of the G8 when he said:

“…in our partnership with less developed and emerging economies, I believe we must put a new and practical emphasis on transparency, accountability and open government. Too many developing countries are held back by corruption – and this can be reinforced or even encouraged by poor business practice and a lack of transparency from those that trade with them.

“Our collective efforts on international development over the years give the G8 both the legitimacy and responsibility to move the international agenda forward to focus not just on aid, but also on the underlying drivers of growth and jobs which will lift people out of poverty for good.

” …. The G8 can also support the underlying building blocks of growth, including the rule of law, the absence of conflict and corruption, and the presence of property rights and strong institutions – what I have called the “golden thread” that makes open economies and open societies the best foundation for growth.  I hope our work will demonstrate that this is not just about what developing countries do themselves. We in the developed world need to work together with them to prevent money laundering and stamp out bribery and corruption….”

The conversation can no longer be about aid effectiveness, but about promoting effective development progress, and rich countries can offer a great deal more toward this than simply raising their overseas development budgets.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2013 10:15 am

    I think that’s a fair summary with fair criticisms. My big complaint is with the simplistic and disingenuous ways that aid is marketed; I certainly don’t believe that aid should be ended. I’d be curious to know what you think of my new book (that the Spec forgot to mention at the end of my piece) “Aiding and Abetting” from Civitas:

    • January 4, 2013 10:26 am

      I rather agree. I think there’s actually a quite wide middle ground of opinions on aid. One of the problems with aid is that it has been so mis-sold in the past, that even though many of its proponents in the present would like to see a more honest conversation about it, they fear the backlash. So the public and political discussion ends up being distorted, too much focused on the extreme for and against margins, and thus is often unhelpful. I expect you know the great essay by Andrew Natsios where he says that the problem with aid and development is that the most effective aid is the least measurable, and the most measurable aid is the least effective. Thus good aid and good development do not lend themselves readily to the soundbite; whereas simplistic for and against extremes unfortunately do.
      Sorry they forgot to mention your book! I’ll add it to my reading list. You might be interested in Internmational Alert’s 2010 dissection of aid,

  2. January 5, 2013 2:03 am

    The aid money actually, instead of being used to finance other development infrastructure, ends up being used to fund terms of trade deficit brought about by trade liberalization. This inequalities and many others imposed upon developing countries have actually benefited the donor rather than the recipient.This cases clearly illustrate the evolution of development aid assistance from providing financial resource to fuel development to being a foreign policy tool used by donor countries to promote their domestic interests. while this can be considered controversial issues, addressing them adequately may help attain some effectiveness in development aid assistance goals.

  3. January 7, 2013 12:04 pm

    Reblogged this on Ipeanddevelopment's Blog.

  4. January 7, 2013 9:51 pm

    Phil I think you are far too kind on Jonathan. There is plenty of rigorous evidence that individual interventions can work, and precious little that aid undermines good governance. The call for “reality-based rather than faith-based” aid shows remarkable ignorance DFID procedures.

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