Tuesday 1 March 2011

So, does aid still do more good than harm?

If it was true that "western aid now does more harm than good", as Ian Birrell argues in the Evening Standard today, then this must surely entail the truth of the following two further propositions too.

* If we reduce development aid, rather than increasing it, then we would make it easier to reach the Millennium Development Goals more quickly.

* If we abolish all development aid as soon as is practicable, we will make it easier to reach the Millennium Development Goals.

If somebody could offer a persuasive, evidence-based proof of those claims, then I would certainly become an advocate of the reduction and abolition of development aid. It is the Millennium Development Goals which matter, not the quantity of aid and the mixture of other means which we should use to try to bring them about. (I am not going to accept a "the millennium development goals don't matter" view argument against the potential value of development aid, though others might reject these propositions but oppose aid for other reasons: charity begins at home, and so on. But the claim that aid does more harm than good makes this traditional trade-off superfluous, as long as it can be substantiated).

Should, on the other hand, the evidence suggests that aid, done right, can still make a valuable contribution to broader strategies for development and achieve the outcomes which Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell set out in the Commons today, including preventing the unnecessary deaths of a quarter of a million newborn babies, (helpfully summarised on Left Foot Forward, along with reaction and comment) then I will continue to support Andrew Mitchell and the Coalition government's decision to build on the record of the Labour government, as the Labour Campaign for International Development sets out) by committing 0.7% of our GDP to development aid.

But let's hear what the evidence is. Do leave a comment or get in touch if you can identify the best resources on when aid is effective or ineffective - and whether it should be increased, reformed or chopped.

0.7% is arbitrary, argues Birrell. And so would 1% or 0.5% or 0% - except that it was set as an international norm. For sure, if aid can be effective, the quantity of aid would be less important than its effective use. (If it is inherently useless and out-of-date, then again the question of its effective use would not arise either).

I can agree with several other things that Ian Birrell argues in the piece.

If we really want to tackle global poverty there are many things we can do. We should lift trade barriers, stop dumping cheap produce, stop arms sales to repressive regimes, crack down on British firms that use bribery and prosecute the pimps in pinstripes who live off the immoral earnings of despots who plunder their nations. We could even allow more immigration, since remittances are by far the most effective source of direct aid.

We could push and campaign for all of these things and more. We should seek to radically reform the Common Agricultural Policy too. The trade round has been horribly stuck for years despite the contribution it could make to global growth and development, The pressure is for less immigration, rather than more. (Birrell has indeed been consistent in criticising the Coalition's immigration cap).

But it is a separate question again. As we try to advance on every front that would be good for development, would it be better to increase development aid, maintain it, or to cut, denigrate and seek to abolish it?

And, again, it is worth conceding several of the arguments. It is certainly possible to agree that aid can go disastrously wrong as well as right, that the way in which it is delivered can be patronising rather than empowering, that the assumptions of an aid-centred view of development is out of date, and should be challenged and replaced.

All of this can be true. But it does not yet amount to an argument that aid does less good than harm.

Ian Birrell's commitment and interest in development is not in question. I thought his recent feature in The Observer on a New Africa - It is time the world listened to new stories from Africa was, broadly, an excellent contribution to the type of shift of focus that would be valuable. ("If we really want to help, we can lift trade restrictions, support those fighting for civil society and ignore the current squeals over new anti-bribery legislation"). "But we should focus relentlessly on trade and not on aid" seemed to be simply thrown in as an aside and a contrast, without any substantive discussion of the pros and cons of aid itself.

Indeed The Observer's while editorial struck the middle course of championing the 'narrative' shift away from aid, while explicitly rejecting this anti-aid argument, on the grounds that aid was still needed, and urgently too:

Six of the 10 most rapidly expanding economies in the world over the past decade were in sub-Saharan Africa: Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique and Chad, countries we have stalked for decades in search of war, famine and corruption. But their stories are changing.

With this acceleration in growth comes an improvement in living conditions. In the past decade, the poverty rate and child mortality have declined, primary school enrolment has increased and more Africans have access to clean water. Clearly, many of the countries still face serious challenges and there is still an urgent need for aid in the short term. But the narrative is changing and while we have been busy telling one African story, they have been busier writing another.

So there ought to be much common ground in these debates - and the potential for a sensible centre, away from the eye-catching media debate usually sparked by anti-aid polemics.

Trade liberalisation is a very important source of growth and development, but whether and how it does that depends on accountable governance, as Amartya Sen has long stressed. In his powerful book The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier makes several significant criticisms of well-meaning development campaigns. Collier also argues that issues other than aid - trade access, public accountability and security - are more important, but that "more aid would probably be helpful" in the right places for the right causes.

So advocates of aid need to demonstrate the good that it does, if placed in a broader agenda. And the question for those who want to shift the focus away from aid may also be whether beginning yet another debate about aid is the best way to do it.


The domestic implications for political philosophy of Ian Birrell's position are not the central point. He is writing as an independent commentator who is very active in civic development projects, rather than with his ex-Cameron speechwriter hat on.

However, his position also captures a central tension within Cameronism, as he could well claim to be more authentically Cameroonian in his rejection of Cameronism on development aid.

The first point is that Birrell rejects a high-profile political choice of "brand detoxification Cameronism" (of which he is a leading advocate), essentially on the grounds that being pro-aid is gesture politics from the moderate centre-right, which would be rejected on the basis of a real engagement with development issues.

(There are, however, less calculating accounts of the Tory Modernisers' motives in deliberately choosing to be on the other side of a public majority over more aid spending: Matthew d'Ancona has written that the teenage George Osborne was personally much affected by the formative moment for his generation of Live Aid: "If you want to understand why Osborne ring-fenced the international development budget, remember that for his generation, Live Aid was a formative event to rank with Mandela’s release and the fall of the Berlin Wall"). It is not a side of George we see so often.

Still, there could well be a ProgCon contradiction here. It is rather strange for Cameron to see the NHS and development aid as the key symbols of brand detoxification at home and abroad. Both are very "big state" ways to be a compassionate conservative.

So, in fact, it is Birrell who offers the more authentically Cameroonian argument, albeit it in a field in which Cameron and his government reject it. Because Cameronism was articulated as a "conservative means to progressive ends, its argument was explicitly set out that Progressive Conservatives will be the real champions of tackling poverty, climate change and under-development - because they know that the state won't be able do it. In the past, the state could make progress on these fronts. In the future, it will do more harm than good, as Cameron argued in The Independent in 2008 in one of his clearest statements of his ProgCon theory.

This is not just happening by default, because the centre-left experiment that began in 1994 has failed. Neither is it because we have made social justice and environmentalism priorities for the modern Conservative Party. It is happening because of history – because social, technological and economic change means that in the 21st century progressive ends can only be met through conservative means.

Take the fight against poverty. We can see that in the 20th century, the methods of the centre-left – principally income redistribution and social programmes run by the state – had considerable success in relieving poverty. It would be churlish to pretend otherwise. But those methods have now run their course. The returns from big state intervention are not just diminishing, they are disappearing.

If the Cameroonian philosophy and history does stack up, then the big state is crowding out the progress we need.

So it would be likely that the withdrawal of the state will, on balance, do more good than harm to reducing inequality, restoring community, decarbonising the economy and promoting global development. On domestic inequality, all of the comparative evidence suggests the opposite is the case, as Nick Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves has also cogently argued. On climate change, I find it is difficult to see how the 'less state' agenda achieves the progressive end (which is perhaps why non-ciimate sceptic Tory modernisers tend not to argue this in that area of policy). On global development, I would like to see what evidence the 'aid does more harm than good' advocates can really bring to the debate.

Unless and until there is stronger evidence to the contrary, I am inclined to think that - on development aid - the Cameron government is right to reject Cameronism, and not just to maintain an aid programme, but to increase it.

But these are empirical as well as philosophical questions. Whether it is a smaller state and the big society at home, or the case against development aid abroad, the political choice is primarily about whether we want to embark on the experiment.

On aid, I think Andrew Mitchell is probably wise to not gamble on that leap into the dark.



Tim Montgomerie, ConservativeHome editor, offered a punchy defence of the government's commitment to the 0.7% development aid target in The Times (£).

With aid cuts, the British taxpayer could, for example, save £2.22 — the price of a tall chai latte in Starbucks — but DfID could no longer vaccinate ten children against polio. We could save £4 — the price of a bottle of Cape Peak Chardonnay at Tesco — but a Senegalese mother wouldn’t have an insecticide-treated mosquito net.

Britain cannot solve all of the world’s problems but it’s hardly extravagant to spend 0.7 per cent of our national income trying to help the hungriest and poorest. We aren’t spending this money just because it’s morally right. It’s also a lot cheaper to stop a poor country failing than to fix a state that has already become a source of asylum seekers, terrorism and piracy.

Owen Tudor for TUC Touchstone follows Harriet Harman in flagging up a stealthy saving of £2.2 billion on development by keeping current spending levels for two years, before hiking aid by 30% in just one year at the end. That is almost certainly not the best route to ensuring effective value for money from development spending.

1 comment:

David Taylor said...

Excellent article. Interesting to bring in the 'Cameroonian' argument re state intervention. In fairness I don't think he meant it in a development context - he'd be clearly wrong since the Washington Consensus is long dead and overwhelming evidence from Stiglitz, Ha-Joon Chang, Oxfam and others show that no country in history has lifted its people out of poverty without an active state, the infant industry arguments etc. Just look at China. And in fact the arguments you've already outlined above.