The comprehensive Data report released today by the One campaign reveals that the flow of aid from Europe to developing countries fell by €700 million in 2011, the first such drop in almost a decade. The crisis in the Eurozone and the squeeze created by austerity measures are taking the blame for this, with Greece and Spain having – understandably – made the largest cuts in their development budgets.
So far, much of the commentary has concentrated on what this means for the EU in terms of its pledge to contribute 0.7% of national income towards achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Although the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands are on track to meet this target, many other European countries will have to stump up billions more in order to do so. This is a tall order at a time when cuts in public spending are being made across the board.
However, new research from IPPR and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), also published today, suggests that this debate is missing the point somewhat. Instead of focusing on ‘getting to 0.7%’, more attention needs to be paid to addressing declining levels of popular support for aid.
In February and March of this year, IPPR and ODI held a series of deliberative workshops around the UK: in London, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Evesham. These sessions gave us a chance to have in-depth conversations with diverse groups of UK voters, both to hear their views on various aspects of the aid and development debate and to better understand the values and attitudes that underpin them. The messages we took from these were mixed.
As the IMF agrees to grant Guinea-Bissau $700 million of debt relief, the European Union, the country’s main donor, threatens to withhold $150 million of aid.
Guinea-Bissau’s leaders will at least be pleased it’s not the other way round.
With the Conservatives back in charge of foreign policy, there is as you might expect a lot of talk about ‘The National Interest’ resuming its proper place at the heart of foreign policy. As this trend has gathered pace, so people with a more, shall we say, cosmopolitan worldview have started countering that foreign policy should be about something bigger than that.
But what, exactly?
In a post responding to David and my Chatham House report on UK foreign policy, Oxfam’s Duncan Green expressed a worry that our argument appealed too much to the new mood of the national interest. What we’d missed, he argued, was the sense of moral purpose that can energise support for development.
We should appeal to hearts as well as heads. Otherwise we risk giving up one of our strongest cards – moral suasion. The reason why the new government has gone out on a limb in pledging to increase aid despite the fiscal meltdown is surely not just about crude self-interest, but at least partly springs from a desire to do the right thing. To, dare I say it, change the world.
ODI’s Simon Maxwell made a similar point in an email to me, arguing that
Your ‘case for foreign policy’ is at first sight defensive and UK-centric i.e. only about defending UK interests. Where is your moral commitment to the MDGs or global stewardship of the world’s people and resources?
Fair questions – not least since much of my own take on development and foreign policy is based on what I consider moral. When people ask me ‘why we’re funding hospitals in Malawi when we’re closing them down at home’, part of me is stunned that the question should even need to be asked – given that in Malawi 5.5% of mothers die in childbirth, as compared to 0.01% here.
But at the same time, the lobbyist in me is hesitant about using morally based arguments. I always have the hunch that anyone who finds them persuasive is already, well, persuaded – and hence that they’re of limited use in enlarging the progressive foreign policy tent. Politically, the idea of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ is still seen as having been an albatross around Robin Cook’s neck at the Foreign Office. And above all, I worry that proponents of the national interest find it easy to paint moral advocates as starry-eyed, particularly given the wider backlash against aid.
But what intrigued me about Duncan and Simon’s responses is that neither of them mentioned an idea that we used to hear a lot about in discussions like these – interdependence.
You see plenty of reports from development agencies castigating development countries for one reason or another, but the boot is much less often on the other foot.
Interesting then to see this 2008 review (huge pdf download) from Nigeria’s National Planning Commission, which sets out to analyse ‘the volume and quality of Official Development Assistance to Nigeria between 1999 and 2007.’
During this time, $6bn of aid has been spent in Nigeria, almost all of it spent by donors themselves, rather than being rooted through the government’s budget. The Planning Commission’s first job, therefore, was to try and work out who had spent what.
So it sent a template to donors asking for information on what they’d spent and where:
Of all the agencies, USAID was the only agency able to provide almost all the requested information with a little delay. EU was also able to meet most of our requirement, only after about three months delay…
CIDA’s [Canada] claimed disbursement did not tally with what they had actually spent…[It] refused to supply more information when asked [to]…
DFID is another donor that could not account for all its activities. When asked to provide information on the sectors and states DFID is operating in, it simply wrote saying ‘we do not require our programme managers to collect expenditure on a state-by-state basis.’…
JICA [Japan]…did not cooperate at all despite our many efforts to get JICA to collaborate with us.
The UN system was also only ‘partially cooperative’. UNICEF did not provide a breakdown of its health spending, for example (nor did DFID or CIDA). “We do not know exactly what [this] money was spent on,” the report notes. The Chinese government was also asked for data – but the review does not tell us what its response was (read into that what you will).
Donors should be much more transparent accountable for their activities, the Planning Commission concludes, while the Nigerian government “needs to offer clearer and more effective leadership to her development partners both in terms of how and where to operate.”
It lauds the example of Kano and Ondo states. They are robust in their response to ‘intruder donors’ who operate outside a framework established by the state government. That allows leaders to set, and be accountable for, their own development priorities.
Update: Of course, Nigeria’s own statistics are often woefully inadequate, whether at national or at state level. Recently, for example, Kano state has just been counting its schools:
An additional 88 senior secondary schools and 174 private schools had been ‘discovered’, while in some areas schools had disappeared: the Kano municipality had 10 less junior secondary schools than first thought.
Update II: Worth pointing out, too, that the World Bank, DFID, USAID and African Development Bank recently agreed a joint strategy for Nigeria – bringing 80% of Nigeria’s development assistance under a single strategic umbrella. Somewhat oddly though, it cannot easily be found on any of the donors’ websites. There’s a copy here though.
I wonder if the donors will now move towards a single online platform to show what they’re spending, where, and what results it’s achieving… and, also, how effectively their joint approach is proving (the Bank and DFID have had a joint strategy for some years now) at reducing overhead for Nigerian government and non-government partners.
“The nature of the ties linking the African with the European has not really changed since the first Portuguese ships went sailing down the west coast of the continent: the sophisticated magic of the white man remains irresistibly alluring to the black.” (Shiva Naipaul)
In all the debates about aid, its visual impact is rarely remarked upon. In rural areas, aid probably looks like a good thing. When you see that a donor has dug a well for your village, you may feel grateful to and enthusiastic about the donor (that is, if you don’t feel embarrassed that your community has failed to dig its own well – a fact rammed home in nearly every village in Guinea-Bissau by a billboard placed next to each well proclaiming that it was a gift of the Kuwaiti, Spanish, Portuguese or American people).
But in cities, to which young Africans are migrating in droves, the visual effect is more ambiguous. When the urban African looks at aid, he sees aid workers and missionaries driving around in brand new Toyota Land Cruisers or Hiluxes. He sees them staring at laptops or chatting on snazzy mobile phones. He sees them dining in expensive restaurants or drinking in smart cafes. And he sees their glittering air-conditioned offices and villas, with iron gates and security guards.
In countries like Senegal, where there are tourists and Western businessmen, aid workers do not stand out. But in poor, remote, unvisited Guinea-Bissau they play an important part in shaping perceptions of the developed world (Guinea-Bissau has no cinemas, precious few internet cafes or televisions, and no press to speak of). And, as they have done for centuries, Africans see all this opulence and want a part of it. Guinean politicians, grown rich on drug money, purchase Land Cruisers and build gated villas. Ordinary citizens spend more than they can afford on mobile phones. And young Guineans, who until recently have not joined the West African exodus to Europe, have begun to talk about taking the boat to Spain – a journey which at least one in six of the many Senegalese who attempt it does not survive.
Of course, foreign aid workers are not the only cause of this new yearning, but it is likely they play some role. Many young Guineans I spoke to, who do not want to risk the trip to Spain, are desperate instead to work for foreign NGOs or the UN. It could be argued that giving young Africans something to aspire to will hasten progress and encourage hard work. Maybe so, but is owning a mobile really progress when you can’t afford your daughter’s $10-a-month school fees (as one mobile-owning mother in Bissau complained to me recently)? And in a country like Guinea-Bissau where aspiration is outpacing people’s capabilities and even well-intentioned governments are struggling to manage expectations, are ostentatious displays of affluence the best way of promoting peaceful development rather than the violent upheavals Nigeria, Guinea-Conakry and others are beginning to experience?