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What do Andrew Marr and the BNP have in common?

2010 April 23
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by Paul Vallely

What do Andrew Marr and the British National Party have in common?  At a dinner in Barnsley the other day I sat next to a respectable be-suited businessman who told me he was going to vote for the British National Party. “They can’t be any worse than the main parties,” he explained. Since we were still only on the main course I decided to unpack this large rhetorical statement and demonstrated just how they could, indeed, be quite a lot worse.

My fellow diner shifted his ground. “They are the only party who are honest about immigration,” he replied. But surely immigration isn’t that much of a problem in Barnsley which is very low on black faces? The man moved his goalposts yet again. Finally he concluded with the bald assertion that, whatever I said, he was voting BNP. It was clear that, whatever evidence I produced, nothing was going to shift him from his deeply-engrained prejudices.

Which brings me to Andrew Marr on Start the Week who on Monday presided over a conversation in which three interviewees parroted the view that aid to the developing world was corrupt, inefficient and a waste of money. It was a strikingly one-sided attack. No-one had been invited to put the contrary view or contextualise the anecdotal criticisms which were made. Mr Marr largely accepted the underlying assumptions of these poorly-informed critics with hardly any serious challenge.

Yet, for all the routine ideological attacks on aid, the vast body of academic evidence shows that international aid is overwhelmingly effective.  There are scores of academics or development specialists who could have appeared to give Mr Marr the other side of the story.

It is interesting that such views are routinely aired in the media without editors feeling the need for any balance. Doubtless they think they are being “counter-cultural” though it is hard to see why when it is virtually the only view you ever hear on the BBC nowadays.

So it is worth restating that aid does work. Not all aid, of course, and no-one denies that corruption is a serious problem. But as Robert Cassen showed in his magisterial study Does Aid Work? – which The Economist called “the most exhaustive study of aid ever undertaken” and “the standard reference on the subject” serious analysis reveals that most aid succeeds in terms of its own objectives and obtains a reasonable rate of return. Perhaps the truth is too dull for the media.

Instead you regularly see trotted out lines like “after 50 years of aid totalling $2.3 trillion children are still dying”. Such propaganda disingenuously ignores the fact that this huge figure works out at less than $9 a year for each of the 3 billion people who live on less than £1 a day. It omits to mention that for the first three of those five decades aid was often not aimed at alleviating poverty but was a bribe for dictators who took the right side in the Cold War era. And it also assumes that no lessons about what works, and what doesn’t, have ever been learned over those 50 years.

The contrary is true. The first thing we did when we began work on the Commission for Africa was undertake a review of all the studies done over the previous 40 years on what makes aid effective.

Most aid is far better spent today than it was even a decade ago. Many of the achievements of the last three decades – cutting  infant mortality and chronic malnutrition and increasing life expectancy and literacy – were significantly assisted by aid.

The truth is that voters, and broadcasters, hear whatever they want to hear. As do football fans. I heard a supporter say the other day about a rich rival club: “all that money and they can’t win anything!” But what will you say, I asked, if they do win something? “I’ll say, they only won because they were given all that money”.

Mere facts, it seems, need never spoil a good prejudice.

Paul Vallely was co-author of Our Common Interest – the report of the Commission for Africa

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