Aid – what is it good for (and at)?

What future for international aid?

Just because something, like improving political systems, for example, is important to development, does that mean it’s the business of development organisations? I’m not sure.

Think about the events in the Middle East. The revolution in Egypt will, we hope, do more for development in that country than any amount of NGO programmes or official aid. And there was probably nothing that donors could or should have done to encourage it, or shape it. So even if we can all agree that political events will shape development, that really doesn’t mean that outsiders need to get involved.

What are donors actually good at? We had Charles Kenny of CGD presenting his new book ‘Getting Better’, at ODI recently. As the title suggests, it is a largely optimistic view of the world of development and poverty reduction. One of his arguments is that donors haven’t been very good at encouraging economic growth – basically no one really knows how to do it – and so they, and their resources, would be more usefully occupied working in areas where it’s clear how to make a difference – vaccination programmes, for example. 

Our understanding of what creates ‘development’ – or what enables people to live happier lives – seems to be becoming more complex as we understand more about what makes change happen.  But maybe the world of ‘aid’ needs to move in the opposite direction and be a bit more modest, or at least transparent, about what bits of this development can actually be helped along by what kinds of outside intervention. 

Can a donor really promote ‘empowerment’ or ‘good governance’ in any meaningful sense?  Are even things like ‘economic growth’ beyond the scope of international aid?  Maybe it’s better for outsiders just to concentrate on things that aid does well, like health and education and leave the really hard stuff to the experts – people who are living the reality of these things in the country concerned. 

This makes me wonder if it might be more honest and more useful, to separate out outside involvement in different aspects of change.  So maybe official development aid  should be a much simpler beast, less worried about economic growth or political change in the long term and instead focusing in on a few things that we know will make a difference to people’s lives right now – health, education, social protection, infrastructure. 

Probably promoting economic change over time is best left to those inside the country.  Maybe outsiders can help most by putting political energy into the negotiation and administration of global public goods, like global tax rules, or rules on intellectual property or attempts to limit the impact of climate change.  

And maybe politics should be more, well, political.  Should advocacy NGOs turn into more explicitly political solidarity movements (like those which supported the African liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps?), who take their cue from the actual politics of the country concerned, rather than more generalised ideas of ‘empowerment’ or ‘rights’? 

This is thinking in process for me. Does outside involvement in the economics, the politics and the welfare aspects of development need to be separated out like this?  Is it a sacrilegious turning back of the clock or a needed dose of realism?  Answers, please…..