The real "poverty barons" are multinational companies

Foreign aid should be investigated, but in the right way

 

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

Food aid is collected in a Kenyan refugee camp. Credit: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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