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The real "poverty barons" are multinational companies

Foreign aid should be investigated, but in the right way

Food aid is collected in a Kenyan refugee camp. Credit: Getty Images

 

On Monday, the new International Development Secretary Justine Greening launched an investigation into the millions of pounds of UK aid money diverted into the pockets of private sector consultants such as the staunchly pro-market Adam Smith International (ASI), following an investigation by the Sunday Telegraph.

This is certainly welcome news. The World Development Movement has for years argued that money made by highly paid consultants like ASI, forcing privatisation, is a dubious use of public funds at best. As early as 2001, ASI was paid to facilitate a water privatisation project in Tanzania, including earning a handsome £250,000 to promote a pop song.

But the worrying thing is that the use of the aid budget in this way is only the tip of the iceberg.  Increasing consultancy spend is part and parcel of a wider undying faith that DfID has in the private sector to deliver poverty reduction.

In one stark example, UK aid money is currently paying for consultants to advise the Bangladeshi government on the establishment of new special economic zones aimed at attracting private-sector investment. Existing zones give multinational companies tax holidays and subsidised land while placing severe restrictions on trade union activity to an extent where the average wage inside these Bangladeshi "export processing zones" is around £30 a month. Here, the scandal goes well beyond the approximately £14m that we are paying the consultants. The heart of the issue is the fact that we are using aid to support a project that will do everything to benefit multinationals like Adidas, which made 671 million Euros in profit last year, and next to nothing for the supposed beneficiaries.

But the government’s pursuit of development policy that focuses on the private sector doesn’t stop at promoting pro-market solutions through consultants. Increasingly, we are seeing multinational corporations replace aid agencies, governments and NGOs as the implementing partners in aid projects.

For example, DfID’s Girl Hub project aimed at getting policymakers to prioritise the needs of girls is being implemented by the Nike Foundation. At the hunger summit hosted by David Cameron during the Olympics, it was Unilever and Glaxo Smith Kline, not NGOs or governments who were named as the major partners.

The problem with all this is that the core assumption – that private sector solutions will be somehow better and more efficient than public sector oriented ones – is based on ideology, not evidence. Nike’s Girl Hub project was slammed as having “serious deficiencies in governance” by the independent aid watchdog ICIA.

There have been myriad inquiries into aid policy over the past decade, but none have broached the key question that needs to be answered: do pro-market, private sector models of development work better for the poorest people than approaches that focus on using and strengthening the capacity of the public sector? The World Development Movement’s 2007 research on water provision showed precisely the opposite.

Justine Greening should look towards supporting an independent Parliamentary inquiry into this broader and more vital question, and put ideology aside and in the interests of genuine poverty reduction. Until this happens, there will remain doubts about whether the government is serious about an aid programme focused on the poor rather than promoting market ideology alone.

Deborah Doane is director of the World Development Movement