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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.