The UK’s left leaning Guardian newspaper recently published this article on their Poverty Matters blog:
‘Afghanistan: proof that untied aid really works‘
It’s well worth a read to evaluate whether you think it adds up. Aid has become controversial in recent years, particularly with commentators like Dambisa Moyo
decrying aid as a scourge in Africa, reducing economic growth and prolonging poverty.
Part of the problem is that ‘charity’ or ‘NGO’ administered aid will always have to come with strings. Charities rely on donations from people, usually for specific causes. It seems implausible that charities will drop their branding and pool resources in order to pursue evidence based interventions that may not be specifically related to their charitable aims.
The article goes on to say, “Even when the aid was technically untied, only 37% of it entered the local economy. Most of the aid spending went elsewhere: to fly in foreign experts, or provide bottled water and building materials.” For anyone who has worked in a setting where aid plays a part, this will not come as a surprise. What it doesn’t mention is that there will be 10 or 20 different companies all flying in their own bottled water.
The ideal of aid money to be used for investment in job creation through, for example, infrastructure strengthening, remains a pipe dream. Ultimately donors do not give money to build roads, develop farmland and create a functioning medical system. They give money to help save the lives of starving children. No bad thing, however to make a long term impact to prevent child starvation the most effective interventions are not supplying emergency food, but lie with unsexy causes such as free trade agreements and commodity speculation.
The “Afghan First” policy has value, but will not stop NGOs from spending the cash they so painstakingly sourced through horrific TV adverts of starving children, and enormous billboards on street corners in rich countries. Funding local projects by financing local companies, hiring local staff and sourcing resources locally is a clearly sensible approach to make aid money go further. However it is not in the interest of those working for NGOs, as it will effectively put many of them out of a job. Chairites with specific aims may also find it difficult to convince their donors.
Conflicts of interest within the aid industry are rife. The future of international development policy post the MDGs must make aid more effective – transparent, untied and evidence based.
Much aid money has done great good, however much has been ploughed into plush offices, smart 4X4s and large advertising campaigns.
More must also be done to convince the public that saving a starving child’s life is valuable, but preventing them from starving in the first place is the more important challenge to tackle.