“Teach a man to fish…”
Don’t worry. I won’t patronise you with another reference to that old cliché about handouts versus giving somebody the tools help themselves. But I do want to take a few moments to consider the ways in which the international community and civil society can help our world’s poorest and disadvantaged.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) spelled out a series of international issues in their contents: child health, killer diseases, global poverty, maternal mortality. What they didn’t say so much about was how they intended to tackle such problems.
Does it really matter? Surely it’s up to governments and NGOs to decide for themselves how to confront the challenges for development set by international frameworks. And this would be right, to a degree – shown for example in the diverse range of ways we have dealt with development so far. But with escalating debate on the correct way countries should supports others’ development, it’s time for us to consider the relative merits of different approaches to international development.
Total foreign aid – or Official Development Assistance – amounted to $127.8 billion USD in 2010. This figure represents all aid from richer countries from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and ignores aid from other donors including China, Brazil and India. Nevertheless, such funds are thought to represent around 80% of all international aid.
When the UN tells us ending almost all deaths from hunger and disease would cost $195 billion a year – why are we not there yet? Major enthusiasm has been and continues to be devoted to mobilising support for government commitments to spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to aid. As can be seen, many countries have some way to go to reach such a target.
So what has aid achieved then? Well, quite a lot actually. Access to safe drinking water for 1.8 billion people since 1990; delivery of HIV medication to 6.6 million people by the end of 2010; massive decreases in child mortality around the world; vaccination programmes – and a whole lot more. Unfortunately though, aid systems as they exist come with some serious drawbacks.
While aid has proliferated in recent years, as has the number of development agencies and donors. With increasing fragmentation has come ‘donor anarchy’ on the part of low-income governments who are faced with literally hundreds of organisations to coordinate with.
Secondly, the issue of accountability remains a source of controversy for many. Donors are invariably concerned that their funds are used for the correct purpose, by the correct people, and aren’t squandered – either in corrupt scams or administration costs. Whether such concern is warranted is worthy of debate, but the level of anxiety is large enough for ‘conditionality’ to come into play. Donors attach innumerable conditions onto their aid packages to aim to ensure the destination of their funds – but leaving the line of accountability between the donor and recipient, as opposed to between government and citizen as per democratic principles.
The cliché of the man and his fish highlights the dependency issue – and aid has likely caused a culture of dependency to thrive in many regions. Whether this is avoidable is one issue, since with such inequalities in income between countries it may be inevitable that sharing resources in the short term would create dependency. But when foreign aid amounts to 10-15%, or even up to 50% of national budgets in low-income countries, the extent to which such countries can govern independently is certainly a question to be answered.
So if aid is to be discarded, what else do we have? Development specialists are increasingly espousing trade as the way forward for poorer countries. It has been said that if Africa were to gain even an additional 1% share of global trade, it would earn $70 billion more in exports – several times its foreign aid receipts. Doing so would necessitate trade agreement rewriting, capacity building for African business and new economic policies on the continent. A major factor stalling such an event is subsidies in the global North where governments subsidise their farmers disproportionately more than the cost of their produce leaving poorer farmers unable to compete. Combined with trade tariffs which charge poor countries in exporting their goods overseas it is obvious how challenging at present it is for poor countries to compete in the global marketplace.
Another increasingly discussed trend is that of remittances. With increasing migration across the planet, the amount of money transferred from migrant populations to their home country or family is ever enlarging with over $300 billion estimated to have been transferred in 2011 alone. Remittances are often the first funds to reach disaster regions and have a number of other benefits over aid in their destination in terms of expenditure on health, education and technology, among other areas. However, some argue they have a negative impact on economic growth due to their use for private consumption among families, as opposed to economic development .
What are we do make of all these bewildering statistics and approaches? In all likelihood we shall see in future a variety of mechanisms for development shared between aid and its counterparts. We should not ignore the positive stories of how aid has improved the lives of many in the 20th century. But we should also begin discussing alternatives now, and share ideas for how future generations can create a more fair and equitable world for all.
What do you think about aid? Have you got any stories of how it has or hasn’t worked in your region? Post your thoughts below or on our forum and begin the discussion today on how development can be transformed for the better in a post-MDG world!
By Jonny Curry
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