Is Britain's international development department raising expectations it cannot meet? A prominent aid critic takes on the secretary of stateby William Easterly / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
Dear Hilary Benn 27th September 2006
We share a concern for the world’s poor and the tragedies they confront every day. However, I must respectfully disagree with the approach that your department for international development (DfID) takes to world poverty. I have similar concerns about other aid agencies, but the flaws I discuss below are exemplified perhaps even more in DfID than elsewhere. Let me use your recent white paper on international development to illustrate my concerns.
In your introduction to the white paper, you spoke of keeping promises and taking responsibility. Both are critical to making foreign aid reach the poor, as it has so often failed to do. However, I don’t see how the idea of “promises” or “responsibility” offered by DfID are at all meaningful.
First, whether you keep your promise to “eliminate world poverty” depends on many factors beyond the control of DfID. And DfID’s promises are breathtaking in scope. As you put it in the introduction: “millions of our human family are living imprisoned: by economic poverty, by political tyranny, by sickness and disease, by ignorance, and by oppression and violence. But now, we have the capacity to free our fellow human beings, once and for all, so that each one can enjoy freedom’s ‘thousand charms.'”
But surely, whether peace, prosperity and democracy break out depends on a few other things besides what DfID does. Exactly how meaningful is a promise to achieve things so far beyond your control? How could anyone hold you to account for whether such promises are kept? Couldn’t you have DfID make promises that it can actually keep? Like, say, getting 12-cent drugs to malaria victims in a given area, getting textbooks into the hands of a target group of schoolchildren, or providing boreholes to give clean water to a given set of villages? And then let both the poor and British voters hold you accountable for whether you kept the promise?
Second, DfID is promising to do too many things at once. The white paper’s list of objectives is vast: building effective states, fighting corruption within each country, preventing conflict, achieving economic growth, putting environmental safeguards on growth, opening up trade, managing migration, getting children into school, improving health, providing clean water and sanitation, addressing climate change, improving the UN, the EU, the IMF and World Bank, improving the international humanitarian…