Wednesday 11 January 2017

Overseas aid isn't the problem

The UK has a relatively large budget for foreign aid compared to other countries (although still not large enough), and it should surprise no-one that not all of it is particularly well-spent.  Last week’s story about an Ethiopian girl band allegedly receiving a sum of £5.2 million for their “branded media platform” was a case in point.  I’m not sure that we’ve been given all the details here, but even taking the story at face value, it does little more than underline the fact that any detailed analysis of how money is spent would throw up apparently unjustifiable examples. 
Part of the problem with the aid budget is that those running aid programmes have a strange desire to receive proper credit for the aid given – they prefer to give the money to something on which they can then stick a Union Jack so that people know where the money has come from.  And if there’s a photo-op for a politician as well, then all the better.  A girl band ticks the right boxes.  It’s not dissimilar to the Welsh Government’s approach to projects which it funds – they have the same preference for projects which can be badged and used for ministerial PR.  The result, in both cases, can be that the visibility of the expenditure is more important to the politicians than ensuring that the money goes where it’s most needed.
But accepting that the aid is not always being spent in the best or most effective way is an argument for better control and targeting, not for a reduction in the amount being spent.  The fact that a girl band may not need £5.2 million doesn’t mean that people in Ethiopia don’t need that £5.2 million.  And it certainly isn’t any sort of excuse for the argument being put forward by some of those drawing attention to this sort of spending that we need the money more in the UK.
In this specific case, we had some Tory MPs arguing that the money should instead be spent on “funding adult social care in the UK”.  It’s an utterly false choice.  It isn’t just Tory MPs, of course – how often have we all heard the line about ‘charity starts at home’, or ‘why are we sending money abroad when there’s so much poverty at home?’.  Just scan the letters columns of any daily newspaper over a period.  But is inadequate funding for adult social care really the direct result of the way the UK spends its foreign aid budget?
At its basest, this attitude is based on an assumption that we can’t tackle poverty in the UK (or fund mental health or social care - insert here any pet project of your choice) because we’re spending our money on foreign aid instead.  And the ‘conclusion’ which is drawn from that is that the way to help the poor is by taking aid away from the even poorer.  There is a massive level of inequality in the UK but, according to this view of the world, what keeps people in their current state isn’t that the richest in our society are accumulating an ever greater share of total wealth, it is that a tiny proportion (0.7%) of UK GDP is spent on overseas aid, and an even tinier proportion of that might be being misspent.  And of course it has nothing to do with decisions to spend money on other things within the UK (such as a new laser weapon system, with a price tag of £30 million – it makes that £5.2 million look like a very wise investment).  One has only to put it in those terms to see the complete fallacy of the argument.
So how do they get away with it?  Why is it that people are so ready to believe that the problem isn’t with the richest siphoning off the country’s wealth, but with the attempt to provide a minimum of assistance to the world’s poorest?  Perhaps we should start by asking ourselves who controls the content and direction of public debate - and whose interests are served by convincing the poor that the problem is the even poorer.


Anonymous said...

Democritus left a comment on "Choosing the right scenario" (but I've moved it to this post)

There is a fundamental divide on Aid policy between those nativist Tories who see anything beyond immediate short term famine / natural disaster relief as inherently wasteful (unless it is tied up with promoting British exports or interests more generally) and a form of socialism by the backdoor. This aid philosophy does not require DFID to be a standalone department - indeed it is best directed by those responsible for leveraging British global priorities most widely - i.e. the mandarins in the Foreign Office as under Major/Thatcher.

Those who view UK overseas aid and the Sustainable Development Act's 0.7% target as a humanitarian moral imperative tend to focus on development, capacity, sustainability and tackling poverty. Inevitably they have a far longer run perspective as far and away the most effective proven route to delivering such goals is via the education and empowerment of women and the development of basic infrastructure.

Ethiopia's development over the 30 years since the famine has been astonishing. Credit at least in part must be given to sustained commitment of UKAid and DFID's predecessors and NGO partners along with the legacy of western public awareness from Band Aid etc. It also, obviously, shows the importance of having a domestic government partner which although undemocratic has for the most part proven itself pretty competent and open to assistance from outsiders. Given the contrasts with Eritrea, South Sudan, Somalia etc. and the migrant crisis it is not obvious that this is the optimum moment to drastically scale back our engagement with Ethiopia.

Democritus said...

Diolch John ...

Anonymous said...

Agree with the thrust of what you're saying but no, don't take anything in the Daily Mail et al at face value! The message of the band was aimed at the largest group of girls in sub Saharan Africa who are subjected to female genital mutilation, child marriage and other forms of violence, and who as a result drop out of school and die in child birth. Only tiny amounts of public and donor money reaches programmes devoted to adolescent girls, let alone dealing with the most difficult social issues. The band and radio station reached millions of listeners in communities with very low levels of literacy. This could be very good value for money. It seems that DFID, having previously supported the programme on the basis of its analysis, is now prepared to let the right-wing press set policy. No surprises there, though.

John Dixon said...


The link to the story was actually on the BBC, but I take your point about not believing anything in the Daily Mail. The BBC is not always much more reliable sadly. I did note in the post that I wasn't sure that we'd been given the whole story, and your comment fills in some details. There are other examples that I could have used - my point in using an example at all was the general one that in a large programme like this, there will always be examples which can be used to cast doubt on the whole programme. I think that the broad argument about overseas aid stands even without an example.

Democritus said...

It is a great shame that the Met Police (including the chief constable) fitted up Andrew Mitchell for reasons that have never been made clear. Here is his article in the Times (05th Feb 2017):
"I am genuinely sorry that my friend and colleague Grant Shapps formed such a poor opinion of British international development policy during his time as a minister at the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID).

His work to develop Energy Africa, the programme he referred to in this newspaper last week, is a valuable initiative bringing power to isolated communities and he is quite wrong to belittle his own efforts by suggesting DfID did not support it “because it did not involve spending vast amounts of money”.

I am also surprised that he should suggest that DfID “does not prioritise human rights”. Human rights are a core part of the partnership principle agreements that govern Britain’s work on international development. Indeed the failure to respect human rights was a key reason why general budget support was stopped in Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Nor, as Shapps implies, does the product of the British intelligence agencies “differ” between departments of state. Such information is provided across all of Whitehall as required.

The idea that civil servants “shovel cash out of the door” is insulting and inaccurate. Above all, Shapps’s suggestion that civil servants could regard it as “a badge of honour not to promote British interests” is offensive. Every penny of our aid budget is supposed to be spent in Britain’s national interest. This funding has a life-saving effect for millions of the world’s most wretched citizens. While it contributes, I hope, to their security and prosperity, it specifically contributes to ours as well.

Democritus said...

part 2:
Nor is it true that DfID and the Foreign Office pursue different policies. Our national security council ties together defence, diplomacy and development into one foreign policy, as underlined by the government’s aid strategy published at the time of the last spending review. Certainly when William Hague ran the Foreign Office and I was the DfID secretary of state we were both politically joined at the hip.

Taxpayers’ money is not ‘shovelled out of the door’: we invest in programmes that deliver results
Then we come to the so-called “Ethiopian Spice Girls” project that so horrified Shapps and apparently the entire British media. Britain was a co-funder of the Girl Effect along with the Nike Foundation, other private organisations, philanthropists and private enterprise. Needless to say the private sector would not have invested its money in such a scheme without good reason.

The project, which created a five-piece girl group, Yegna, directly confronts issues that profoundly affect millions of the poorest girls in the world: early and forced marriage, isolation, violence and genital mutilation. The results that have been achieved are remarkable. International donors spend billions on schools, health centres and vaccines that are hugely underused when girls cannot or do not access them. This is sadly the case for millions of girls living in poverty.

This project has now reached 8.5m people and 95% of boys who engage with Yegna say they would speak out against a girl being forced into marriage. Credit is due to the Nike Foundation for championing this so successfully and shame on the British media who bullied DfID ministers into withdrawing from it.

There is currently an unprecedented attack from elements of the media on British international development policy and our commitment to the 0.7% funding arrangement. The huge respect and admiration around the world for what Britain is doing to alleviate international poverty is masked in the UK by a media campaign to belittle and trivialise the position on the ground. Doubtless mistakes are made, but thanks to the coalition’s decision to set up the independent commission on aid impact in 2010, independent supervision on behalf of the British taxpayer has been embedded in the system.

The reality is surely this: Britain’s budget for overseas development is set at 0.7% of our gross national income — just as the major parties solemnly promised it would be. The House of Commons, with only six dissenting votes, has enshrined this in law. It is most unlikely that parliament would agree to reverse this. International development is by its nature long term. It addresses, directly, the modern evils of terror, migration, climate change and protectionism. Knowing, more or less, the budget for the future ought greatly to assist the work to achieve these long-term goals.

Money is not “shovelled out of the door” at the end of the financial year: we invest in programmes and activities that deliver results and drive forward the aims and objectives set down by the government. If, as the financial year ends, the economy is doing better than projected, then the opportunity of investing more in advancing these worthwhile objectives becomes available.

The rules of what is and what is not development spending have been agreed by 30 nations, including Britain, in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; parliament has agreed the amount. So now it is the task of ministers and officials to strive ceaselessly to ensure that every hard-earned taxpayers’ pound delivers 100p of value on the ground.

There has been only one famine throughout the past 20 years. This year the world faces the acute danger of four famines in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. I profoundly hope that in the 21st century we will be able to stop such unconscionable horror taking place. If we do, there is no doubt that Britain, with its know-how, support and commitment, will be at the heart of that achievement."