The government’s promise to up foreign aid risks pumping more cash into a broken systemby Patta Scott-Villiers / May 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
With the election over, tax hikes, public spending cuts and possible job losses are on the way. But the new government is still promising more aid abroad. It is morally right and pragmatic, said the Tories before the election: cutbacks would cost lives and leave Britain vulnerable to dangerous resentment in the world’s most beleaguered corners. The Lib-Con agreement even promised that the target of 0.7 per cent of national income spent on aid by 2013 “will also remain in place.” This could mean £12bn to £16bn by 2013, depending on the performance of the economy.
Yet much existing aid is spent badly, and there is little sign that the new government has a workable plan to fix it. Yes, David Cameron’s 2009 green paper proposed aid based on evidence of effectiveness, a new independent watchdog, increased transparency, punishing corruption and promoting the private sector. That all sounds fine. But the department for international development (DfID)—which gives out Britain’s aid money—would be forgiven for saying there is nothing much new here.
DfID puts prodigious effort into independent evaluations, while financing plenty of private sector initiatives. Britain’s bureaucrats (alongside phalanxes of outside experts) constantly push leaders of poor countries to deal with disorder and dishonesty. Labour even created a new “stabilisation unit” between the ministry of defence, the foreign office and DfID to try to solve the most intractable foreign conflicts that threaten our security.
But the difficulties with the aid system go deeper. Most aid goes to governments, so auditors aren’t able to evaluate programmes without treading in murky political waters. Instead they produce bland reports, which all too often are ignored in the rush to spend money. And the Tory promise to focus on results could see more focus on easy wins: counting children into schools, miles of road built, or police trained, while riskier projects that might deliver balanced economic growth or durable security are ignored.
As I’ve learned working in east Africa for 25 years, successful aid requires not just money for infrastructure and training, but also a social consensus on how to run things effectively and fairly. I have recently been part of a small team working on a DfID-funded project in Ethiopia. Over seven years we organised events for thousands of ordinary citizens to meet and debate with traditional leaders, politicians, administrators and aid providers. We commissioned research on local issues…