Thank goodness that once again we have a British government which regards world poverty as a shameful scandal, rather than as some sort of social tonic encouraging thrift and hard work.
But the truth is that development aid as it exists today is not an efficient means of financial transfer. A huge proportion-it rarely drops below 50 per cent-returns to the donor country in the form of contracts and salaries. For technical assistance, now the biggest part of British aid, the flow-back is higher.
An enormous amount of professional energy has gone into making aid projects a success. But-according to figures you yourself have quoted-we can regard about one third of aid programmes as successful, one third as damaging and one third as in between. Recently, you set the success rate “a bit higher”; but that can hardly be regarded with any pride.
In any case, aid is usually assessed according to its own criteria. This is problematic: a growing body of research shows that it is the unintended consequences of aid which are most important. Aid can prop up authoritarian governments, allowing them to resist democratic reforms and inflict brutal repression. Unfortunately the record of using aid as a tool for human rights and democracy is not good.
When the cold war ended in 1990 British aid was, for the first time, formally linked to the democratic credentials of recipient governments. Many in the aid business welcomed the chance for “real aid” at last. But Britain did not impose punitive conditions on China and Indonesia, partly because they would have had no effect. (I don’t detect a change in policy under Labour.) Aid hasn’t been very good at the practicalities of building peace and democracy either: witness the experiments in Cambodia and Somalia. In countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, we give aid to human rights institutions and to train policemen: laudable but limited.
The aid apparatus is very difficult to reconcile with democracy because of the entrenched interests of donors and aid bureaucracies, and because of problems intrinsic to the aid encounter. Almost all forms of planned social change enhance bureaucratic power, allowing governments or other external forces to intrude into people’s lives. In the aid encounter, power remains with the donor. Even the most benign conditions serve to keep power in the north; even a successful aid programme can have negative side effects…