Another day, another damning report into Britain’s great aid giveaway. It is almost enough to make you feel sorry for the army of Whitehall officials desperately trying to shovel vast sums of our cash abroad even as their bosses claim to be committed to austerity at home. This time it is the independent aid watchdog underlining the folly of the government’s pledge to give away a fixed proportion – 0.7 per cent – of Britain’s income, regardless of the needs of recipient nations or desires of their citizens.
The body’s investigation into spending on ‘fragile states’ shows the obvious repercussions of ramping up donations each year to hit a meaningless target invented half a century ago. Britain now spends an astonishing £12bn a year on aid – a sum bizarrely dismissed as ‘a very small amount’ by Westminster defenders, even some on the right. Almost a third goes on so-called ‘state-building’ in 28 struggling nations – but the inquiry found it was spent too fast, without proper scrutiny, with unrealistic targets and failed to make much difference.
This is hardly surprising. The huge sums lavished on these troubled places have doubled in three years – even as spending on Britain’s defence was slashed, the health service struggles and social care falls apart. Yet these scathing results will be brushed aside by the self-serving aid industry. Charity chiefs on six-figure salaries will carry on making sanctimonious claims of saving the world, echoed by politicians and pop stars trying to look compassionate.
Yet a growing body of experts and evidence conclude foreign aid is a waste of money, doing more harm than good by fueling conflict, feeding corruption and corroding democracy. Take Scots-born professor Angus Deaton, a world-renowned expert on measuring poverty. After a lifetime in the field, he shocked the aid world by concluding development aid was an illusion. As he told me, aid is not needed when conditions for development are present – yet when they are not there, as in fragile states, it can be damagingly corrosive.
Free money from abroad means dodgy regimes have no need to win consent from citizens by delivering decent public services and holding fair elections. Instead, they spend hard on security to entrench their rule. Now look at where the torrent of taxpayers’ cash is going. We are still giving hundreds of millions of pounds to India, despite its ambitious space programme and promises to stop. Also to Nigeria, another nation joining the space race as well as a major oil producer and home to some of the most corrupt politicians on earth. Its handout has more than doubled under the coalition.
Then there is Ethiopia, the biggest single recipient of our cash despite a horrific human rights record and the recent kidnap of a Brit as he travelled in the Middle East. You never hear ministers mention the billions they give to Brussels for its woefully-run aid projects. Mind you, they might struggle to defend huge sums spent sorting out the sewers in Turkey, let alone teaching teenagers to dance in Burkina Faso. The truth is capitalism and consumerism are driving rapid change in the developing world, especially when harnessed to improved governance. Aid is at best an irrelevance, at worst a brake on development.
And it is increasingly resented abroad – especially in Africa, since it promotes damaging images of people unable to help themselves and a continent too dangerous to visit. After all, how would you feel if young adults from Benin or Bolivia turned up in your town and told you how to run your schools, hospitals and government? It is easy to be generous with other peoples’ money, especially when taken from them in taxes. But this ill-advised aid splurge is one more reason why people are so fed up with Westminster, especially amid austerity at home.
Published by The Sun (13th February, 2015) by Ian Birreel