Sierra Leone. Photo: Richard Mallett
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“But they have a space programme!”: untangling the foreign aid debate

Mainstream narratives about aid are clumsy and confused: here's how to talk about international development.

Aid is one of the great political footballs of our time. Certainly, it’s one of those issues that gets some pretty strong reactions on a fairly frequent basis.

But most of the time, the way it’s talked about is unhelpful. Whatever your stance, engaging productively in the public debate on aid is really hard because of the clumsy and confused nature of mainstream narratives. To me, a lot of what people say conflates several different aspects of what is quite a large and complex debate.

The next time you hear someone important (a politician, an op-ed writer, Bono) talking about “the big question” – whether we should give aid overseas – observe the way they are actually talking about a number of different things at the same time, mixing up issues which should really be treated quite separately. Many people’s positions on aid are grounded in a horribly distorted logic, which takes some effort to untangle. Here is one attempt to start doing that: below are five separate strands of argument that are quite often thrown together when stating or defending a position.

Whether aid should be given in principle

In making a case for or against aid, people often reflect on whether it should be given in the first place. Many will argue that there is a moral imperative to help others because of the disgusting injustice of many millions of people being born into absolute poverty. Others will ask why on earth the UK has any obligation (or right) to address these problems, however awful they might be.

This line of reasoning is in many ways distinct from the issue of whether aid is good or bad at what it’s meant to do. The point here is instead far more about whether one believes there is a fundamental case for helping out less well-off people living in a different country. My sense is that most people believe in the principle of giving aid, but that this is conditional on a number of factors. Many argue that the UK, as a relatively wealthy country, has some sort of responsibility in principle to help out our less well-off counterparts, but that this obligation can be made void if, for example, the UK is going through tough times (“charity begins at home”).

Whether aid should be given as long as we get something out of it

Then there’s the argument that we should be giving aid because it’s in our self-interest. Returns of various kinds are cited: a safer world and quieter UK borders are two popular ones. Whether aid actually generates these effects doesn’t appear to be all that important. When David Cameron assures the electorate that his aid policy is helping to reduce immigration to the UK and make our country safer, he presumably hasn’t seen the research suggesting that aid can induce migration or that there is no causal link between poverty and participation in terrorism.

Whether aid is allocated and spent appropriately

Those making impassioned arguments against aid usually make the point: “I just cannot understand why we are lavishing millions on a country with more dollar billionaires than us/a space programme/legions of government officials with an insatiable appetite for sunglasses and sports cars”. There are a few dimensions to this. One is whether aid should be given to countries that are technically not “low income” (and which are presumably, therefore, not deemed deserving). Andy Sumner’s extensive research into the geographical distribution of absolute poverty is a must read on this point. Another part of this is people’s concern that our aid money is being misspent on booze and lap dancers. These kinds of arguments, however, tend to be based on hearsay, anecdotal evidence or isolated events. I don’t think anyone working in the aid industry is denying that aid has never been misused or diverted. But hopefully some of us would argue that this is a reason to make the system work better, rather than a reason to scrap it altogether.

Whether aid works

This is the most frustrating part of the whole aid debate, because it is an evidence-based question.  Plenty of research has been done, and the published outputs are available to read. Granted, it might not always be openly accessible – a problem, for sure – but if people are mounting public critiques of aid on the basis that it doesn’t do what it’s meant to, then the least they can do is a bit of reading. Much of the evidence is positive. But not all of it is – and people should be open about this. That said, the biggest problem I see with this part of the debate is that the question is framed too broadly. Researcher Lee Crawfurd puts it well: “Next time you hear ‘does aid work?’ think ‘does policy work?’. It's a silly question, and obvious when you put it like that.”

Whether aid is the best way to support development

“We shouldn’t be giving these countries aid, we should be looking at more sustainable solutions.” The sense I get is that many who talk about “why aid is bad” feel they’ve stumbled across something those working in the industry have never realized: that aid is not the best option, that there are better ways of addressing poverty. Promote the international mobility of labour, tackle inequality, remove protectionist trade policies, and so on. Not only would most people agree with this, but it’s actually what many aid folk are working on – and have been for years. Arguing for structural change does not mean having to argue against aid.

Rich Mallett is a researcher in international development. He tweets @rich_mallett

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity