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Coming to our aid

2011 June 3
by Paul Vallely

David Cameron has been passionate in his defence of British aid. And quite right too. The prime minister has been under pressure from Conservative backwoodsmen, and the cash-strapped Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, to cut international  development, whose budget has been protected from public spending cuts.  There is more to this than tightened public spending purse strings. There is something pernicious in the air.

The campaign has been orchestrated by the Daily Mail, which has been suggesting that far from alleviating global poverty, aid has actually made things worse, propping up corrupt governments. But the paper’s coverage has been ignorant, dishonest and cynical. It has relied on outdated stereotypes and isolated half-truths in a wilful attempt to harden hearts against helping the world’s poorest people.

The cliché about aid supporting dictators may have been correct in the 60s and 70s when it was sometimes handed out by both America or Russia to any tyrants would support them as Cold War proxies. But the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Since then, decade by decade, aid has become more effective, more poverty-focused, and better-targeted through projects, programmes, sectors and budget support to ensure that it is not so easily siphoned off. The idea that we have learned nothing about where aid works and where it doesn’t is preposterous.
The Mail makes no acknowledgement of this. Instead it produces a handful of dodgy examples to back its case. It quotes a 2005 International Monetary Fund report entitled ‘Aid Will Not Lift Growth in Africa’ as if it were the IMF’s view, rather than a discussion paper by two individuals. Few would suggest that aid alone will automatically lift growth; it has to be linked to good policies by African governments. Aid and policy are interlinked. The IMF’s position is actually that aid does support growth in low-income countries and in many cases needs to be increased.

The Mail also cites in evidence Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian economist who wrote a sloppy and simplistic book Dead Aid. Again, no recognition that Moyo is one of a handful of maverick writers whose views run countered to all the mainstream research. It is like citing Nigel Lawson on climate change. Intriguingly the Mail brags that Moyo used to work for Goldman Sachs – an organisation which the Mail elsewhere reports contributed to the global financial crisis by designing, marketing, and selling collateralised debt obligations. The paper quotes a critic’s description of Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” whose executives should be put on trial.

It also quotes a poorly-researched book by the journalist Linda Polman which draws erroneous general conclusions from unrepresentative examples. On the resettlement programme by the Ethiopian regime in the 1980s – which I investigated personally from both sides – gets much completely wrong. The newspaper laments  the fact that much UK aid goes to India, which has a growing economy, and even a space programme, without admitting that more than 400 million Indians live below the international poverty line – more than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Nor does it seem to know that India’s emerging middles classes are increasinglty  philanthropic; nor that British aid to India is planned to taper off.

It is easy to find high-profile examples of aid not working. Corruption and misguided policies by some African leaders have seen to that. So has the West’s brand of economic fundamentalism which in the 80s and 90s gave priority to price stability, privatisation and financial liberalisation when what was needed was trade reform, job creation, industrial development and economic growth. But extensive studies have shown that, where when a strong commitment is made by Africa leaders to change governance, aid works. It has put 33 million kids into school and cut the number of children who die before their fifth birthday by 4 million since 1990. Smallpox was wiped out by just $100 million worth of targeted aid. Aid has increased medicines for Aids tenfold. Analysis by the World Bank, that great defender of free-market capitalism, suggests that average rates of return on its aid projects in Africa exceed 20 per cent. “Critics who ignore the benefits aid brings,” says Desmond Tutu, “are at best misguided and at worst putting ideology ahead of real improvements in the lives of poor men, women and children.”

The history of aid is littered with broken promises. Unrelenting pressure by activists over the years has reduced these. The G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005 has, thanks to persistent lobbying by anti-poverty activists, now delivered $31bn of the $50bn it promised. That is a remarkable achievement, though it still leaves a shortfall of $19bn in real terms, as David Cameron insisted was included in the G8 communiqué at Deauville.

“Aid-bashing does not actually get us anywhere,” one of his development ministers, Alan Duncan, noted recently. “If we were to cancel the aid budget altogether it wouldn’t solve all the other problems.” Britain is an exceptionally rich country, even in this downturn, and there can be no moral equivalence between financial hardship in the UK and the struggle for basic survival in the poorer parts of the world.

Selfish and cynical cries that “we gave before and it didn’t solve theproblem” are tantamount to saying “we had lunch yesterday so we don’t need to eat today”.  Most people in the world are poor beyond our imagining. Total aid over the last five decades handed out less than $9 a year to those in the world who live on less than £1 a day. Not a princely sum. The pledge which David Cameron wants to keep – to give 0.7pc of our national earnings in aid – is like saying if you had a pound, would you give a halfpenny to stop someone dying in the street?
I think we can afford that. How much does the editor of the Daily Mail earn?


from Third Way magazine

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