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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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”