Foreign aid should focus on finding jobs for people in poor countries--and Britain can lead the wayby Paul Collier / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ahead of the general election in May, parliament passed the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act. This enshrined in law the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid each year. What should that aid be used for over the next decade? The UN recently came up with an answer: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), designed to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.”
Unfortunately, the SDGs are fatuous. By consulting widely the UN, perhaps inevitably, arrived at a vacuous compromise: 17 goals and 169 targets, in no discernible order of priority, which are supposed to apply to every country in the world. But saying that “everything matters everywhere” is merely another way of saying that “nothing in particular matters anywhere.” Troubled times demand a less frivolous response. In the future, those disbursing aid should be ruthlessly selective about what they are trying to do and where they are trying to do it.
The SDGs, however, are a licence for every development agency in the world to carry on doing what they want, since that will almost certainly be compatible with at least one of those 169 targets. Agencies that were once the flagships of international aid have given up trying to lead the rest of the world to anything more focused or coherent. The World Bank has spiralled into a vortex of demoralisation, while the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been hijacked by Congressional lobbies that tie every line of its budget to some special interest or other.
The one outstanding exception is Britain’s own development agency, the Department for International Development (DfID). Not only does it have a big budget, it has coherent objectives and is intelligently led. While the UK’s diplomatic and military influence has waned, its influence on development issues has grown. What DfID does matters for both its direct impact and for its indirect influence on policies elsewhere. So what should its agenda be? It should start by determining priorities. Aid agencies seldom do this because it is painful and requires vested interests to be confronted rather than accommodated. But the goal of ending poverty through economic growth is too important for indulgent, feel-good romanticism. Compassion has to be firmly chained to realism.