Aid: the Good, the Bad and the Useless
Recently, the UK government revealed plans to scrap the Department for International Development (DfID), merging it into the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO). I, and many others in the charity, politics and development circles, was devastated - and perhaps rightly so.
But firstly, what does any of this mean? A few basic definitions: international development is to “reduce poverty and inequality and improve health, education and job opportunities around the world”, DfID was the UK’s dedicated department to international aid (and were in control of the aid budget, which is set at 0.7% of the GDP), the FCO “promotes the United Kingdom's interests overseas, supporting our citizens and businesses around the globe” and the merger is a part of a larger governmental reordering.
So back to the merger, DfID has been one of the best performing departments in government, so why is it being scrapped? Boris Johnson points the finger at it being based on “Britain's best interests”, that for too long DfID and UK aid has "been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interests… [and without consideration] of the priorities, diplomatic, political or commercial, of the government.”
Isn’t that what aid is supposed to be? Independent of any political or commercial meddling and there to help development efforts globally in the most efficient way? Yes. Aid is supposed to be research-led, almost altruistic and innovative.
However, with aid departments globally and scandals walking hand-in-hand (for example the Pergau dam affair and the Ethiopian PBS scandal), can we even justify international aid as we know it? Is it the best thing we can do globally to support each other and to develop together?
As you can imagine the answer is complex. I can only scrape the surface by offering suggestions and further ideas based on research and my own ingenuity. It has to take into consideration who’s providing the aid, whether it be governmental bodies, NGOs or international institutions. It also has to take context into consideration: social, political, environmental and economical.
I think a great starting point would be to look at DfID very briefly, since I made the obnoxious statement that they were one of the best branches of government. DfID did have an impressive track record though, with them being one of the most transparent donors globally, and according to the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, 80% of DfID’s spending is of “good quality” (in contrast to the 80% of FCO’s aid spending being of “not good quality”).
In theory, this is what aid institutions globally can do really well: international development through collaboration amongst experts to create effective spending of aid budgets. Experts know that foreign aid is complex so they do the research to ensure that the projects that are being funded are as effective as possible.
However, this doesn’t always prevent misallocation of funding, as DfID scandals throughout its existence have shown, where aid doesn’t always go to the right places. One example, if not the biggest criticism of aid, is that it goes to “corrupt” governments, wasting taxpayer money, fuelling inequality further and perhaps even funding human rights abuses (like with the Ethiopian resettlement scandal I mentioned earlier). And if it isn’t corrupt, it is criticised for fostering dependency.
One way to mitigate this problem is through “bottom-up aid”, distributing aid to communities and host country NGOs themselves rather than going through corrupt governments. Transparency UK has a fantastic blog about why we should still donate to countries known for corruption, but how we can also ensure money doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
This funding of small community organisations, businesses and enterprises as well as infrastructure and technologies - can increase the investment desirability of a country. Foreign aid can also promote discussions of how LEDCs can manage these cashflows more effectively as donor countries often demand policy change in exchange for grants and loans.
However, this advantage in itself points to one of the largest problems with foreign aid: the neo-colonial undertones. White saviours, aid as bargaining chips, politicisation, Western narratives about LEDCs and the idea that, like colonialism, we need to provide LEDCs with our resources in order for them to be as “developed” as we are.
Some would argue that aid isn’t even necessary, and with arguments of the effectiveness of aid falling short, this isn’t hard to see if it isn’t really helping in the first place. Many countries develop their economies through a variety of means and without little investments from other regions. How do they supposedly do this? Free trade and increasing tax revenue. There are issues with these, the first being that in the long run we’re unsure is capitalism (championed by free trade and neo-liberal development theory) can be sustainable and increasing taxation is hard, there are more challenges than one would initially think.
Regardless of all the arguments it has done good; increased access to adequate water and sanitation, incredible emergency relief, tackling preventable diseases and a variety of other things.
Where do we need to go to keep providing effective aid and to tackle complex problems within aid? I believe (disclaimer: I’m not a professional, just a girl who’s done a decent amount of research) there are three main take-aways from this: to champion bottom-up aid, to distance politics as far as we can from aid and to make sure we fund effective projects. The first reduces risk of aid not being used in a corruptive way, the second avoids scandals and reduces pressure on the receiving country, and the final one is morally right, and allows us to spend taxpayer money effectively.