Does International Aid Have A Future?
As public purse strings tighten, international aid is under the microscope. Adapt but don’t cut it off, says Chris McIvor
Frequently, newspapers have urged cuts in government aid, while the work of organisations has come under scrutiny. Is international development aid a force for good? Yes, I believe it is – but there’s a big ‘if’. Successful projects do not arise by accident but by design, good planning and informed decision-making. That’s not always happened.
Thirty-five years ago I arrived in Sudan to work as a teacher. I was young, naive and ignorant about where I had ended up but tried to be open to the experiences and lessons it had to offer. A Sudanese colleague, Mohamed, invited me to visit his village, about half a day’s journey along the river. En route we took a detour, ending up in what I remember as a graveyard for old, broken-down machinery; pipes scattered on the ground, abandoned engines and pumps, bits of metal protruding from the sand.
They feared the expensive, imported equipment would get clogged up, the cost of repairs would be prohibitive and the whole scheme would be abandoned Mohamed told me the government, supported by an international donor, had attempted to convert this part of the country into a centre of agricultural productivity. Machines were brought in, irrigation equipment installed, pipes laid to the river a few miles away to ensure an adequate water supply. But the local community knew this part of their territory was vulnerable to heavy sandstorms and the encroaching dunes. They feared the expensive, imported equipment would get clogged up, the cost of repairs would be prohibitive and the whole scheme would be abandoned.
That’s exactly what happened. “Our only surprise was that this project lasted a year longer than we predicted,” Mohamed said. “Local farmers could have doubled their agricultural production with simple help. This waste of time, money and goodwill of people in another country could have been avoided if they had bothered to listen to us.”
In my four years as a teacher in north Africa I saw projects that were the opposite of this one. But several things stayed with me and informed my views and opinions. First is the importance of listening to the people we are supposed to be helping. At times this will involve bypassing officials, externally appointed leaders or even members of a community who may have very different priorities and interests than the more vulnerable.
I remember a project in rural Zimbabwe where we prided ourselves on the consultations we carried out with the community around the best place to site donated water pumps. Community elders were clear about the ‘best’ locations, so we installed them. But several months later children and women complained that the wells were in the wrong place – not near their homes, clinics or schools – so every day they spent an inordinate amount of time collecting water. The principal institutions that benefited were the local beer halls, also in need of water, frequented by the same gentlemen in the community we talked to about where to position our pumps.
Listening is important but it requires further efforts to listen to the right people. Most farmers in Haiti, for example, are illiterate, have no agricultural qualifications, no formal training. So ‘specialists’ frequently bypass them in their plans to develop agriculture because they are not used to or comfortable with the way they speak and present themselves. With minor support the success of local peasant farmers in rearing pigs in an area devastated by swine fever far surpassed the results of large, grandiose schemes I also visited.
Unless people play a part in projects meant to benefit them, those projects stand a good chance of collapsing. In an emergency context of floods, earthquakes or civil conflict, where people are in immediate need of food, water, medicines and shelter, there is room for handing out goods and providing services. But once that phase is over, working with people so that they play some part in improving their own lives is crucial to promoting responsibility, pride and self-help.
They were not prepared to contribute even a small amount of labour unless they got paid because in a neighbouring village money had been handed outMy organisation challenged the attitudes of members of a cholera-hit community in rural Mozambique, who were reluctant to help dig holes for latrines we were providing to prevent the spread of the disease. They were not prepared to contribute even a small amount of labour unless they got paid because in a neighbouring village money had been handed out by another agency to prompt people’s engagement in a similar task. Ill thought-out charity can corrupt communities and societies. Of course that is not a reason to discontinue supporting people in need but a caution to be wise, careful and prudent.
Over the last four years I have been based in Egypt. Much of our work was with refugees from Syria who ended up in Cairo to escape the civil conflict. A recurrent theme was not in staying in Egypt or migrating to Europe but looking forward to a time when they could return to their original communities to rebuild what they had lost and create a future for their children on home soil. International aid is important because we still, thankfully, have a desire to help people less fortunate than ourselves. But there’s a also very pragmatic reason to continue it.
At a time of increased conflicts and global tension it is more necessary than ever to establish a stable and less polarised world. Providing appropriate, generous and timely assistance is also a self-interested measure. Those who call to slash our aid budget should remember this.
The cost of helping
In 2015, for the third year running, Britain met its commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on foreign aid, with the official budget rising to £12.2bn (from £11.73bn in 2014).
Only six countries met or exceeded the UN-defined 0.7% goal last year – Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden.
At £12.2bn, Britain was the world’s second largest international aid donor in 2015, behind the US.
More than 40% of the collective budget went to multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations. The rest – ‘bilateral aid’ – went directly to developing and war-torn countries: Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Nigeria are the biggest beneficiaries of Britain’s bilateral aid. (Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)
Chris McIvor has worked in foreign aid for 35 years.
Posted in The Big Issue, August 16 2016