Monday 23 January 2012

Has Unconditional UK Foreign Aid Failed?

Rachael McCallum

ECHO funded helicopter delivering food to remote locations in South Sudan. WFP/ Ahnna Gudmunds WFP

Foreign aid is vital in improving the lives of billions people across the developing world. However, in these times of economic crisis, the strategic contribution that aid makes to poverty reduction and development is under increasing scrutiny and political debate. 

Whilst the UK gives more of its national income to international development than most other developed countries, it still lags behind several European countries which have already hit the United Nations ambitious 0.7 per cent of their spending into aid target.  

It is important to remember that overseas aid is not only targeted at long term poverty reduction, it also includes humanitarian aid which is reactionary short term aid to emergencies such as natural disasters. Post-conflict reconstruction is also considered as overseas aid, which is indicative as to why countries like Iraq and Afghanistan are some of the largest recipients of foreign aid. Additionally, debt relief also qualifies as overseas aid; with the amount of a debt Britain cancels for any country being factored into their foreign aid commitments. 

Another sector included is technical assistance, which is perhaps the most poorly defined and measured area of overseas development aid and includes money paid to consultancies.  It is believed that at least £2 million of the UK´s overseas aid budget has been given to consultancy firms since the election in May 2010 up to November 2011. This means that at a time when schools, police forces, councils and government departments are facing stringent cuts, a large chunk of money allocated to alleviate poverty in the developing world is placed into the hands of private consultancies. This is an area which needs to be more open and transparent to the UK public.  

Aid packages from the Department for International Development (DfID). Photograph: AP Guardian
What is left after removing these sectors from the total amount of foreign aid committed by the UK Government is what we could consider genuine long term development aid. Disappointing progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is reasoned by critics as evidence that this long term development aid is not working. However, this argument tends to correlate aid too closely with substantive development progress.  Aid is an incredibly complex instrument that involves negotiating and operating in political and economic systems far removed from our own. 

To a certain extent, we can agree that some aid is wasted on programmes with no tangible lasting results or initiatives that are not cost effective. Some aid is undoubtedly stifled by corruption in a number of developing countries. Is the answer then to tie British overseas aid to stringent conditions? To say unconditional foreign aid has failed? 

The answer is no. Of course in times of economic instability and strain, overseas aid programmes should be closely scrutinized. However, in an increasing interconnected world it is important for the UK to uphold its overseas aid commitment whilst ensuring increased transparency and the allocation of funds based on aid effectiveness as much as possible. 

There has been renewed interest of late in aid conditionally, with the Commons international Development Committee proposing that aid given by the United Kingdom to countries with a history of fraud and corruption being "conditional" on them improving their governance and human rights records. 

The international community does have a role to play in improving rights and aid donors should influence countries to pursue political freedoms and poverty reduction. But while aid conditionality seems like a good idea in practice, the UK has better, more effective instruments to pursue a human rights agenda for the developing world such as trade regulations and diplomacy. There is not a one size fits all mechanism to promote good governance and human rights, solutions should be tailored to fit the circumstances of individual countries rather than a blanket set of aid conditionality criteria.

Aid is a long term investment in both an individual country's future and our collective global future. The UK in time will see a return for its investments made now. Aid lays the foundation for long-term relationships, which will become beneficial economically when the developing countries are fully fledged consumer markets. 

It is important to emphasise that many of the issues such as climate change, poverty, and political unrest are deep seeded problems within many developing nations, for which there are no short term solutions. Is it not better to starting working towards these solutions now than down the line when they are firmly entrenched and more difficult to counteract, to be proactive rather than reactive?

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