The debate on aid spending is missing the pointby Romilly Greenhill / April 29, 2013 / Leave a comment
The debate over the aid budget is becoming increasingly intense. In recent weeks, there has been much discussion about whether the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid will be enshrined in law. Reports that the bill won’t be included in May’s Queen’s Speech have led to speculation that the coalition government is planning to drop it altogether, despite vehement denials from the prime minister. Holding the coalition government to account for delivering on its aid commitments is important. But by focusing narrowly on aid volume targets, this debate risks missing the point. We should focus (and even argue) much more about how aid money is spent, and how we can reduce the need for aid in the long run.
One part of the problem is the all or nothing approach of aid’s most trenchant critics. “It doesn’t work perfectly so let’s ditch it” is a well-used refrain that distorts the debate around the UK’s aid spending. Another problem is the way that the aid target is devised. It measures only the volume of spending, not how money is spent or the results it achieves. This makes little sense. Most people would not haggle over the cost of expensive purchases without some idea of the quality of the product. Yet this is exactly what the debate around 0.7 per cent target does—it focuses on quantity over quality. Moreover, the target itself doesn’t only include things that most people would consider to be aid. Donors are allowed to include some spending on refugees and international students, which few people would consider to be “real aid.”
But even within “real aid”—the share of aid that actually ends up being targeted at poverty reduction in developing countries—we need to focus more on quality. The best aid is led and managed by people locally—where possible governments or, in countries with repressive regimes, UN agencies or NGOs. This helps governments and other actors build up the skills and capabilities to manage aid well, rather than always relying on outsiders. Putting governments in the lead enables citizens to hold their own governments accountable for achieving development, rather than looking to…