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One of the more puzzling intricacies of our politics is the intransigent stance taken by so many of our representatives with respect to international aid. Our politicians are far too content, in some cases positively willing, to let thought collapse into cliché. With the media often following suit the national debate has begun, once again, to resemble a crazed bi-polar argument.

On the one hand the Tory press loves to run stories detailing DIFD’s bloated and wasteful expenditure. They argue that when it’s not going into the coffers of third-world kleptocratic maniacs it’s being spent refilling the inkpots of E.U. bureaucrats. In short, our commitment to 0.7% is a futile waste of money. Yet on the other side we have the same intransigence. Guardian reading pseudo-humanitarians for whom this heartless stoicism is the most perfect catalyst for the regurgitation of their gluten-free lunch. Such people are just as harmful to the national debate, for they have a blind loyalty to the project, regardless of its ability to create genuine difference. However, in between our collective bouts of highs and lows a reasonable voice must be heard.

Part of the problem is that the rhetoric from both sides often invokes an archaic and outdated notion of development programs. We think of international aid as something akin to the numerous charity campaigns that are screened in the commercial breaks of X Factor and other such programs. Too often aid is depicted as this Victorian form of charity – a residue of post-colonial pomposity.

Consequently, some members of the Tory party are now suffering from what Susan Moeller described as ‘compassion fatigue’. They simply do not have the will to continue spending money when so little seems to have been achieved. They argue that aid is ineffective, so why should we bother? Curiously, the moral argument for aid is very rarely brought into question. Instead, a fatalistic apathy is the primary means of persuasion. This explains part of the hostility to the 0.7% commitment – it is seen as a donation that we must forgo for no apparent effect.

What we need is a post-aid attitude – one that enables us to move away from the typical conceptions and refashion a commitment of a very different sort. At present, we seem to have some modern convolution of paternalistic attitudes prevalent in colonial times. Large bureaucratic structures are the primary mechanism for development projects. Ultimately, the approach is characterized by a ‘we know best attitude’ with little consideration for nuanced understandings of culture and history. In short, we think we know enough about how to fix a country as to impose our own solutions.

Somalia is the most perfect example of this kind of thinking. Why are we financing an unstable parliament, filled with corruption, and already failing to win popular support outside of Mogadishu? Why not engage with those sharia courts that were the best providers of law and order and the most effective defence against the horrors of al-Shabaab in the first place? The same phenomenon is reflected in our failed Afghanistan experiment. The hope that we could build an extension of our own liberal parliamentary democracy is ever diminishing. These examples, as well as many others that could be listed, show that a more nuanced understanding of history and culture is needed, more than anything they point towards the fact that a new post-aid thinking must be pragmatic.

The truth is that this is the more difficult discussion to have – an incessant bickering about 0.7% is the easier one. If we do this then our policy debates can begin to focus not on 0.7% but on conditional and comparative performance figures, (information you will be hard-pressed to find anywhere on DIFD literature). ‘Payment by results’ programs could well be a game-changer in this respect. The effectiveness of PBR programs has been shown in places like Northern Uganda by a number of organisations, especially in the field of education. Another successful idea achieving impressive results over the past decade is the various microcredit programs that operate in the third-world, nurturing the emergence of natural markets and facilitating local trade.

Those that trash the case for international aid seem cynical, in the sense that they cannot see good where it exists. As such, they are blind to new and inventive ways to mitigate the worst effects of poverty.

The future answer to the tragedies of poverty will not be found in large bureaucratic apparatus, dictating the quantities of different development goods and services, but rather, in small and innovative programs that work with each individual community to address their unique needs. The role of government should be to facilitate the solving of problems in cooperation with the many ‘not for profit’ organisations that can provide the expertise. The moral argument for international aid remains intact and unchallenged – what we need now is a new and sensible debate about aid policy.

Will Emkes is currently serving as Bright Blue‘s intern. He writes in a personal capacity.

Follow Will on Twitter: @EmkesW


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