Poor excuses for the failure of foreign aid programmes

Globalisation of capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. There are no equivalent figures for the effects of foreign aid. One wonders why...

by Robin Mitchinson on 12 August 2013 13:43

Even by his standards of cant, David Cameron excelled himself when he told BBC Breakfast that the increase in the foreign aid budget was partly intended to discourage immigration. He reckons that pouring tax-payers’ money into places like Somalia will stop mass migration to the UK. Well, at least the food donation to Al Shabbah will keep the terrorists well-fed for a few years.

The tiny island of Montserrat is a microcosm as to how aid works. It is not much more than a volcano. Before the devastating eruption in the 90s, its main business was George Martin’s recording studios, plus a bit of tourism.

The most productive part of the island was wrecked, and even today is an exclusion zone. The area is an awesome sight. The main town, a picturesque 18th Century port, has disappeared completely under volcanic mud and ash. Both the port and the airport were totally destroyed. The entire population was evacuated, most to the UK and US.

A suitable case for aid? Up to a point.

A new airport was built, in the wrong place according to the locals, at a cost of £8 million. It has 3 departures a day. The runway is 600 metres, about the length of a flying club strip, so only the smallest commuter planes are operated. There is no safety run-off; at the end of the runway is a sheer drop into the Caribbean.

It was very susceptible to closure in bad weather, making for an unreliable service, but it was the only means of getting off-island. I suggested that instead of spending aid money on consultancy fees to London-based fat-cats the ferry service to Antigua should be restored. I see that this has now happened, a few years down the track.

The total amount of aid to the island stacks up to about £324 million. The total population is about 5,000. So that’s £65,000 for every man, woman and child. A resettlement grant per family might have been a better idea, but that’s not how the system works. The acid test of an aid programme is simple. Does it do any good?

We just don’t know, because aid programs are heavily input-orientated: that is, the measure of success is the proportion of the budget spent in each financial year. At this time it appears to be less than 50 percent, partly due to the quality of management and partly due to the fact that DFID is awash with money and lacks the institutional capacity to invest it.

And it is not generally known that a very high proportion of the UK aid budget goes in ‘multilateral aid’. This is a euphemism for handing over stacks of dosh to the EU to spend as they will.

Not much attention is paid to outputs – whether the work was done satisfactorily. I worked on a 3-year  project for DFID and didn’t even have an exit interview, never mind a discussion of my end-of-tour report.

No attention at all appears to be paid to outcomes – whether the ‘investment’ had the desired effect. I suggested that all institutional development projects – those intended to improve public service management – should have an efficiency audit six months and 5 years after completion. No response, but then I wasn’t expecting any.

And I sometimes wondered if I occupied the same planet as the shiny-bums in Whitehall or Brussels. One bright young thing came up with the notion that  computers should be put in all schools in the African country where I worked. I demurred. They had no electricity supply. I suggested that the money might be better spent on putting glass back into the windows and tiles on the roofs, but that was not very sexy.

So what does work in poverty alleviation? In a word, globalization. It is estimated that more than 200 million people have been lifted out of poverty as a result.

There are no equivalent figures for foreign aid.

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