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 emergency response and promoting regional solutions, just to hit the high points. Even if they were all feasible promises rather than ones beyond the control of DfID, the numerous promises make it even harder for British voters and the poor recipients to see exactly what DfID is “responsible” for. If you are responsible for everything, you are responsible for nothing. This weakens incentives for DfID. If every aid agency makes numerous promises (and they all do), then no one area ever receives any one agency’s concentrated attention. Why doesn’t DfID specialise more? Specialisation would alleviate the problem of aid co-ordination, in which donors are falling all over each other duplicating projects in every sector in every country.
Third, given the impossibility of knowing whether the above promises are kept, there is an unfortunate tendency in the white paper to talk of aid promises being kept simply by spending more aid money. Alas, we have 50 years of experience that tells us that aid spent does not equal aid received by the poor. Aid money spent is the cost, not the benefit. Would General Motors tell its shareholders that it had achieved a breakthrough with consumers by setting a new record for production costs? Mr Benn, could you please break the pattern—could you introduce a permanent moratorium on aid money spent as an indicator of success? Far better to redirect our energy and concentration entirely to the other side of the ledger—evaluate what benefits have been achieved for the world’s desperately poor.
British government rhetoric has been even more problematic than this, promising Africa a “big push” towards the end of poverty, based on the increase in aid budgets. The theory that the end of poverty will be achieved by an aid-financed big push has been around since the 1940s; its repeated failure has led most students of this history to abandon it.
I am saddened by the way aid agencies keep repeating the mistakes of the past, failing to keep the only promise that really matters. This is not the promise to achieve worldwide prosperity, peace and democracy, which is not within their power. It is not the promise to spend more aid money. It is the promise that aid money spent will actually reach the poor. It is the promise to save the lives of malaria victims by getting them 12-cent medicines, to create opportunities for the next generation of schoolchildren by getting them textbooks, and to dig boreholes to give clean water to villagers. Could DfID promise a small number of concrete things like these, take responsibility for them, and then let independent evaluators—consulting the poor—pass judgement on whether DfID kept its promises?
If it did this, then DfID could set a shining example for other aid agencies, and break the cycle of unaccountable promises, failure and backlash that has hurt both the cause of foreign aid and the world’s poor. Respectfully yours William Easterly Dear William 2nd October 2006
Let me start with where I think we agree. I am with you in saying that the amount we spend on aid should not be considered an indicator of success. And with respect, nowhere in the white paper do we say that it is. While Labour’s tripling of aid to Africa shows the depth of our commitment, my measure of success is whether people’s lives change: how many more children are able to attend school, how many more people have clean drinking water and so on.
I also agree with you that in the past, aid agencies (including the World Bank, where you worked for so long) have made mistakes. During the cold war, aid was provided to dictators just because they were on “our side.” But since then we have learned about what works, and why.
Your fundamental criticism of our “promises” is that they are so ambitious and so broad-ranging that we cannot be held responsible for delivering them—and hence they are worthless. You are right that we are ambitious. We owe this to the millions asking political leaders to bring about change, not least through Make Poverty History, which had such an impact on me and many others. But nowhere in the white paper do we promise to “eliminate world poverty.” We are not naive.
We know, as you point out, that changing things will require big shifts in global and national institutions, different spending priorities by governments and ending the conflicts that imprison millions in poverty. Climate change is just one example that cannot be tackled by us alone. This is why many of our promises involve others. True, we cannot be solely responsible for these. But just because responsibility is shared does not mean it is absent; in fact, shared responsibility can be the best support when times are tough, particularly in politics.
You are also right that our promises are broad-ranging. But you are mistaken in criticising DfID for failing to specialise and prioritise. We do both, focusing on areas where we have the advantage and avoiding those where others can be more effective; it is not our role to replicate the World Bank or NGOs.
Successful development depends on many things. Are you saying that aid agencies should stop engaging in the debate over trade, the competition for Africa’s raw materials and the destabilising impact of civil war and conflict? Digging a borehole is important, but what if the village is on the fringes of a war zone and about to be destroyed? Or if a lack of rain is destroying the environment?
So let me address your underlying concern about accountability. As you have argued elsewhere, the world’s poor have historically had little say over what we do. They cannot vote out donor governments, nor do they have enough influence over traditional aid. But a whole host of small-scale projects is not the answer.
We have to look more fundamentally at what gives people in developing countries the most say about their future. Experience has shown that aid is only as good as the economic and institutional environment in which it works. We have learned the hard way, through spending millions of pounds, that outsiders, however well-meaning, need to support rather than undermine local efforts.
The rich world does have responsibilities to the poor world but the relationship has to be two-way. The Commission for Africa report spelt this out clearly: in return for more and better aid (meaning more predictable and with fewer conditions attached), African countries promised better governance (meaning more accountability, greater openness and better financial management).
British aid will continue to deliver the “concrete things,” as you call them: helping to abolish health user fees and recruit 3,000 trained health workers in Uganda; digging 260 village wells in Ghana, bringing fresh water to 50,000 farmers; and building schools in rural Yemen.
But if we, as donors, were to take sole responsibility for delivering these “concrete things” then the incentive for poor people to demand such services of their own governments would be lost. And it was just these demands that in the rich west made our governments deliver: people went out into the streets and demanded their rights.
It is developing country governments, not donors, who have to take “responsibility” for the economic, social and political development of their own people. This is one reason why I put governance at the heart of the white paper. It is politics that makes the difference.
It was politics that enabled millions of children in Africa to go to school for the very first time. Politicians in rich countries cancelled debt, allowing politicians in developing countries to abolish school fees. If this is not an example of aid making a difference, I don’t know what is.
I want to end on another issue where we agree. You call for independent assessors to pass judgement on whether or not DfID has kept its promises. I agree. Indeed, one such set of assessors, the OECD, has just published its review of what we do. Its conclusion? That “the UK offers a powerful model for development co-operation.” This is not to say we are complacent. I am deeply aware of how much more we have to do. But narrowing our approach and limiting our vision of responsibility would take us in the wrong direction. Warm regards Hilary Benn Dear Hilary 4th October 2006
It is a mark of your integrity and openness that you are willing to engage in this dialogue. But there are a number of unresolved issues in our exchange. While I am glad the white paper never explicitly says aid dollars spent are equal to success, the emphasis on spending throughout the document is consistent with the long, sad history of emphasising aid volume rather than aid results. The first statement of recent government policy on aid in the document says: “The UK has changed its approach too: doubling aid since 1997; committing for the first time ever to a timetable—2013—for giving 0.7 per cent of gross national income in development aid; writing off 100 per cent of the debt owed to us by some of the world’s poorest nations; winning support for the International Finance Facility for Immunisation which aims to save the lives of 5m human beings over the next decade; and making Africa a priority through our G8 and EU presidencies.”
And what was the main result of making Africa a priority at the G8? It was the “G8 at Gleneagles undertaking to: increase aid by $50bn a year by 2010, with $25bn of that to go to Africa; cancel debt worth another $50bn; and provide Aids treatment to all who need it by 2010.”
Aside from the unrealistic promise to provide Aids treatment to all who need it by 2010 (the World Health Organisation’s promise to provide treatment to 3m patients by the end of 2005 was broken with no consequences for anyone except the patients), all these statements are about spending more aid dollars, not about results.
I agree with you that the wellbeing of the poor depends on many things. As you put it: “Digging a borehole is important, but what if the village is on the fringes of a war zone and about to be destroyed?” However, showing that something is important is not the same as showing that it is amenable to outside fixes. It would of course be preferable to fix the whole system of chronic war and bad institutions that keep poor people poor. However, there is no evidence that fixing the whole system is feasible for outsiders; on the contrary, such comprehensive attempts at systemic change by the World Bank, IMF and bilateral aid agencies have repeatedly failed either to change government behaviour or to generate growth. Just look at the debacle of structural adjustment in Africa or “shock therapy” in the former Soviet Union. As for outsiders bringing peace, there are occasional successes—for the moment—like Sierra Leone or Liberia, but the failures are more numerous: Somalia, Rwanda and now Darfur. One might say these tragedies happened because the west did not intervene forcefully enough—if you want to see the effects of forceful intervention, then I guess we would have to discuss Iraq and Afghanistan.
You say that it is up to the government in the poor country to fix things, and up to poor people to hold their government accountable. I agree that home-grown development is the only kind that succeeds; witness the recent climb out of poverty of China and India, which involved very little aid. Outside aid by definition cannot create home-grown development; it can only help some poor individuals until society-wide home-grown development happens. Moreover, providing a lot of aid to poor countries’ governments and working exclusively through them seems to me—and this is confirmed by the data—to make accountability worse rather than better. It makes governments more accountable to foreign donors than to their own people. Donors are stuck with an intractable dilemma if they stick with government as their primary partner. Do they provide funds to governments with no strings attached, even if it means money winds up propping up corrupt autocrats? Or do they attach the strings and try to “fix” the government, meaning that outsiders with little local knowledge are dictating how other people should run their own societies? Either option undermines government accountability far more than donors directly providing boreholes, textbooks and critical medicines to needy individuals. Moreover, helping individuals rather than governments would make the poor better able to contribute to change from below.
At the moment, aid is stuck in an in-between world in which nobody is responsible for anything. If poverty alleviation is all up to the national government, I am unclear about what DfID is promising and how we tell if the promise was kept.
You say that DfID does specialise and prioritise. The evidence does not support this picture. I have produced an index of donor specialisation that goes from zero (complete fragmentation where every aid dollar goes to something different) to one (where every aid dollar goes to the same thing). Complete specialisation is not ideal but reasonable specialisation would lead to a score closer to one than zero. DfID’s score on the index in 2004 was .05 for different country recipients and .10 for different sectoral recipients. This shockingly low score has been the same for the past 20 years, and is similar to other donors. Despite donors’ rhetoric to the contrary, the World Bank’s 1998 statement that donors feel the need to “plant their flags” everywhere remains valid.
I am glad that we agree on the need for independent evaluation of aid, and congratulations on the positive OECD assessment of British aid. However, the people whose opinions about aid really matter are not OECD officials, but the poor who are supposed to be benefiting. Effective independent evaluation would go out into the field and rigorously test whether poor people who got aid are better off than those who did not. Respectfully yours Bill Easterly Dear William 6th October 2006
I agree that we should focus on the difference aid makes to people’s lives, not on how much we spend. But it would be wrong to deny that the agreements made at Gleneagles will allow us to help many more people. And although we didn’t meet the WHO target of 3m people on treatment for Aids by 2005, we did see a big increase in help: in sub-Saharan Africa, three times as many people are now receiving treatment compared with 18 months ago. Is it enough? No. Is it progress and did the target help? Unquestionably, yes.
I am pleased that you also see ordinary people holding their leaders to account, and demanding change from within, as central to effective development. But I am less sceptical than you about outsiders’ capacity to help, although, of course, we cannot aim to “fix the whole system.”
I share your relief that the World Bank and others have started to move away from imposing conditions on aid that forced developing countries to undergo painful and often unhelpful reforms, although I am currently holding back £50m from the World Bank to encourage it to move further still from the wrong kind of conditionality. And I share your concern to improve the way we deal with conflict; this is why we are working so hard to achieve a lasting solution in Darfur.
However, I think the stark distinction you make between “no strings” aid, risking corruption and misuse, and “with strings” aid, which risks undermining local accountability, is a false one. There are many different ways to provide aid that steer a course between these two extremes.
In the white paper I set out a simple test that determines how we engage with poor countries. We now ask three main questions of governments: are you committed to reducing poverty?; will you uphold human rights and international obligations?; and will you improve governance, fight corruption and make sure the money gets to where it was intended? Some have argued that in the worst cases—where corruption is rife and governance poor—we should walk away. But we cannot abandon aid just because a country has corrupt leaders. What we have to do in such circumstances is to shield aid from corruption while continuing to help the poor.
Around the world, DfID finds practical ways to ensure that aid cannot be siphoned off. We can and do directly fund the “concrete things” which, as you say, can help “make the poor more able to contribute to change from below.” Or we can earmark aid for a particular programme of work in a sector and account for that money independently through a separate bank account. We do this in the education sector in Kenya, where the financial risk of handing over money to the government is too great.
But we also work to help end corruption directly. In Malawi our work has helped to strengthen the anti-corruption bureau, which brings corrupt public servants to court, and aided parliamentary committees to scrutinise the budget and other areas of government policy. And in Sierra Leone, our advice has helped the government to develop new payment mechanisms that have almost doubled the proportion of school fee subsidies reaching the right people.
This leads me to your second claim: that providing aid directly to governments undermines local accountability by making them “more accountable to foreign donors than to their own people.” This just isn’t true. Our strategy is to support governments’ own plans—through long-term, predictable finance—helping countries to develop as they see best. This approach includes direct budget support, complemented by technical assistance to help train civil society and government officials in the practicalities of running a working political system.
Under these arrangements, donors can clearly and simply be held to account for their promises and commitments, and governments can increasingly be held to account by their own citizens for theirs. Going around governments not only undermines the democratic process but can also deprive the public sector of the most talented local people.
Our fundamental approach is to respond to government requests, and I do not consider it appropriate to tell the prime minister of Tanzania that we will do one thing in his country, but not another. We should listen to countries’ own priorities provided they are consistent with the three principles I set out above. That is not to say we do not encourage donor co-ordination—I could give you many examples of this—but I am strongly of the view that donors need to be flexible enough to respond to local priorities, be it education in Ethiopia or revenue collection in Rwanda. Warm regards Hilary Benn
Dear Hilary, 6th October 2006
Politics often forces cabinet ministers to deny contradictions and trade-offs—it is the unhappy job of us academics to point them out. Attaching strings to aid to force good behaviour and letting governments choose for themselves are not “two extremes”; they are contradictory goals. Of course, you are right that DfID can choose to be somewhere in-between, but only by trading off the one goal against the other. You can let governments run their own countries with your money and risk corruption and other bad behaviour, or you can crack down on such government misbehaviour at the risk of outside meddling in matters outsiders little understand. There is no escaping this trade-off. I’m sorry, but the aid-financing of a government’s budget does weaken its accountability to its own people—we are all most accountable to whoever pays our salary! Foreign aid pursuing contradictory objectives is not new: the 1969 Pearson commission report on the World Bank’s foreign aid was somehow able at the same time to assert that development policy is “the responsibility of the recipient alone” and that “increased allocation of aid should be primarily linked to [recipient] performance.” So here we have it: aid agencies are not responsible for whether a task is achieved—that is up to the recipient government. The recipient government is not responsible for whether a task is achieved—they are too poor and get most of their revenue and advice from foreign aid donors. These dysfunctional contradictions and evasions of responsibility are hidden behind a thick wall of Bono concerts, Angelina Jolie and Jeff Sachs tours and millennium development goals. Meanwhile, another million people will die from malaria for lack of 12-cent medicines, another generation of schoolchildren won’t learn because there are no textbooks, and villages will go another year without clean water because the aid-financed boreholes broke down years ago and were never fixed. How disillusioned will the British public be when they find out? Please, Hilary, could you not amaze the rest of the unaccountable aid industry, and just take responsibility for keeping your promises? Respectfully yours, Bill Easterly Dear William 9th October 2006
I am glad that you raise the issue of public support. The millions who joined Make Poverty History changed the terms of debate: global justice is now the undisputed moral cause of our age, and none of us can ignore our responsibilities to the world’s poor. So you are right to warn against disillusionment. Indeed, public cynicism is my greatest fear. If the British people were ever to turn against helping the world’s poor as a result of the wrong policies, we would have failed not only this generation but those who come after us.
We can all see the attraction of the approach you advocate: giving what is most easily quantified—boreholes, medicines and the like. And part of Britain’s aid programme does just that. However, I remain unpersuaded that this should be our only approach. It is not contradictory also to help governments to work better to provide for their own people’s need. This is hardly “meddling in matters outsiders little understand.” All functioning governments have essential features in common: a capacity to do things, good financial and information management, clear lines of accountability and freedom from corruption, to name just a few. We owe it to the world’s poor to help their governments to develop these capacities. Strong economic growth and fair trade are simply the fastest and most effective ways to get people out of poverty, and both of these require governments to work properly.
The course you counsel would leave developing countries facing the same problems in a decade’s time; it is not enough to focus on symptoms alone.
The greatest hope for developing countries is for their governments to build their capacity to govern effectively. That’s how to ensure, in the years to come, that boreholes get built (and maintained), medicines distributed and children taught. After all, that’s how we did it. Warm regards Hilary Benn