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That’s your cash tossed away with those aid leaflets

The Urdu sign above the door of the one-room concrete building proclaimed it to be a government medical dispensary. Inside, it was an empty shell. When I asked my guides to this village in the Kalash valleys of northwest Pakistan where the medicines were and when the government health worker was coming back, they laughed.

The health worker had never come, they said. The government had paid for the building and that was that. It was the same story at the village school, where no teacher had turned up. This particular village was near the border with Afghanistan, had been increasingly targeted by Taliban recruiters and was exactly the sort of place where a small amount of effective aid could have made a big difference.

Pakistan is one of the biggest recipients of British foreign aid, and, as a country with acute problems of conflict and what aid experts euphemistically call “poor governance”, it may get even more as the aid budget swells and the UK shifts its efforts away from wealthier countries such as Brazil and India.

Sometimes national or local authorities make genuine, effective efforts to ensure aid is reaching the needy. Mostly, though, they don’t. And Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) and other aid agencies often do not have sufficient trustworthy staff or the inclination to check for themselves, either. The average DfID staff member in Kenya spends only a day out in the field in any given year, preferring the villas, swimming pools and gap-year social life of Nairobi.

In any case, many agencies and their NGO (non- governmental organisation) contractors keep quiet about realities on the ground while making grandiose claims for the success of their efforts. But as the former dean of education at Delhi University replied to a DfID claim of having reduced the number of out-of-school children in India by 5m, “enrolment is not equal to attendance”.

Aid reality can differ remarkably from the official metrics or the glossy brochures and websites. It is extremely difficult to ensure aid reaches its intended beneficiaries and does genuine good. Talk to aid workers off the record in bars from Cape Town to Kabul and you will hear different stories.

Aid reality can differ remarkably from the official metrics or the glossy brochures and websites

The leader of one small NGO recalled how he had been working on a project in an Afghan village when a fleet of white Land Cruisers roared down the main street. The passengers were from an international agency engaged in “awareness-raising” for microfinance, then seen as a panacea with universal application rather than a methodology that works only in certain cultures. The aid workers set up a tent and tables. They gave a speech to villagers enticed by tea and biscuits, handed out leaflets and returned to the capital by nightfall. The leaflets were abandoned. No one in the village could read.

Even worse is the case of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where hundreds of aid agencies turned up after the Rwandan genocide to help the fleeing Hutu genocidaires and their families. The vast, lawless refugee camps where they handed out food, set up schools and provided medical treatment became bases for murderous raids across the border. The presence of foreign aid workers gave them a human shield against Rwandan counterattack for almost two years.

Most NGOs and government agencies fear that if they admit how much aid goes to waste or is stolen or diverted in the form of extorted bribes — or how much causes harm by undermining government, wrecking local economies, enabling corruption or subsidising conflict — raising funds from the public might become harder.

In Britain an aura of sanctity surrounds the aid enterprise. If you question any aspect, you are tarred as heartless, yet few in the aid industry like to admit that not only did six decades and $3 trillion of development aid fail to bring about economic growth in Africa, but there also seems to be a correlation between development aid and state failure: just look at Haiti and Somalia.

As for humanitarian or emergency aid, its greatest triumphs have often been achieved by those outside the aid industry. It was a US aircraft carrier that saved tens of thousands of lives in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. This is just one reason why it makes sense to divert some of DfID’s bloated budget to the MoD and those parts of the military that engage in humanitarian action to buy “dual use” equipment such as heavy-lift aircraft.

There is no question that much aid does much good. I have seen many small projects that transform lives and help heal traumatised societies. Some could do with DfID cash to survive or to reproduce themselves on a larger scale; others are run by people who are all too aware that their formula for success is unique to that place and that time and whose aim is for their jobs not to be needed. They know that the fetishised 0.7% of GDP target is a mere marketing tool that bears no relation to the needs of the poor or the ability of aid organisations to cure poverty or any other social ill. Theirs is an example that DfID and its lobby should follow.

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/columns/charlesclover/article1223703.ece

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