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At last people are starting to realise that foreign aid achieves very little

Often aid gives power and patronage to corrupt regimes that are the cause of poverty themselves

By on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Bob Geldof: a vocal supporter of aid to Africa (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Bob Geldof: a vocal supporter of aid to Africa (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Foreign aid, particularly foreign aid to Africa, is one of the sacred cows of modern politics. The Conservative party made a point of ring-fencing the aid budget in its manifesto, and this is one area which will remain immune from cuts, unless something changes dramatically. But just before you think that this is a good thing, it might be an idea to listen to what some people think of the effects of foreign aid. Take James Shikwati, for example, a Kenyan who actually lives in Africa and who perhaps has more hands-on experience of Africa and the effects of aid than most. His views are robustly expressed in this interview from 2005; but as far as I can see, there is nothing that has happened in the last six years that might have made Shikwati change his mind. Nor is he a lone voice in criticising the negative effects of much aid to Africa. There is also Dr Dambisa Moyo, from Zambia, whose qualifications to speak on this subject are impressive, if a doctorate from Oxford can be calculated to cut any ice. Does our Coalition Government listen to them? Presumably the Department for International Development has a host of special advisers, but who they are is not revealed on their website, unless their names are tucked away somewhere that the casual browser cannot find them.

Aid has been big business since the 1960s, but despite the huge transfer of funds from Europe and North America to Africa, it is hard to point to much that this aid has achieved. Some countries, like China, have lifted millions out of poverty without receiving foreign aid. But any hint that aid to Africa is counter-productive tends to be met with howls of rage. I lived and worked in Africa for four years and saw many aid projects at first hand: the swimming pools built with foreign cash for a people that on the whole dislike swimming; the tarmac roads that existed only on paper; the student hostels that no student wanted to live in, and all the other projects that Italians call cattedrali nel deserto (“cathedrals in the desert”). I also saw the local fat cats, known as wabenzi (named after their favoured mode of transport, the Mercedes Benz), and knew, along with everyone else, who was paying for their lavish lifestyle.

The good news is that the tide may be turning, at last. There is a growing realisation that government to government aid is not the way forward, particularly when this aid simply gives power and patronage to corrupt regimes, regimes that are the causes of poverty rather than part of the solution.

From the Catholic point of view – and historically Catholics have been at the forefront of aid projects – there is now renewed emphasis on governance issues, which is welcome. For an excellent book on this subject one could not do better than to read what Professor Philip Booth, a frequent contributor to this paper, has to say. He has written a short, incisive and clearly expressed book on the matter. Everyone should read his exposition, which is a mere 62 pages, and which sheds light on to what is quite a complex subject. It is particularly good on how the question of foreign aid ties in with our obligation of love of our neighbour. The professor’s take on this subject is moderate and reasoned throughout, and his criticism of state-sponsored government to government aid strikes me as irrefutable. I will write some more about what he says later.

  • ms catholic state

    It’s not much publicised in the West for some strange reason…..but about half of the top 12 fastest growing world economies are in Africa. Ghana is number one. Much of the reason for this is new development…….and a young population with high birthrates. I guess that’s why it’s not publicised much in the West. (See…Economy Watch under Fastest growing economies)

  • SeanGough

    This is silly, so suggest all aid is a bad thing by citing some example of bad aid, and especially that this could come from a priest. You should know more than anybody that what you are speaking about is utilitarianism, and has nothing to do with the Christian personalism that the church teaches.

    To give you a good example, when Bob Geldof did the first live aid concert to give relief in Ethiopians, many people criticised him for all the reasons you have just given. And he gave a response which reminded me of when Mary Magdalene poured the expensive nard on Jesus’ feet. He said that even if only one life was saved, then all the effort would have been worth it. I remember seeing at the Live Eight concert, that Bob Geldof brought out a smiling, happy, successful young lady onto the stage, she had been one of the staving children in the original video appeals. You seem to know the value of everything, but the value of nothing.

    This is not to mention the fact you ignore all of the good work which is been done. The health care, the education, the wells, the vaccinations ECT which require government funding in order for central coordination.

    Maybe instead of campaigning against westerners, with our vast amounts of wealth which was (and still is) won from the poverty of the worlds poorest people, giving less than 2% of our taxes to people living in extreme poverty you should focus on some important issues, such as abortion, human trafficking and thousands of jobless people this country will soon have.

    God bless

  • brian morris

    The issue is surely how Christians can best help the poor.Its pretty clear that giving aid to governments merely subsidises corruption and dictatorship,and that we need to find a better way ,by going for groundroots projects not controlled by the states…that is the point Fr Lucie-Smith is making.