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25 June 2011

The real question about overseas aid

It's not the UK's aid budget that hinders development, it's free-market capitalism.

By Deborah Doane

The Daily Mail continued to push its anti-foreign aid sentiment this week, with its headline on Wednesday: “Billions in overseas aid puts people off giving cash to charity”. The paper reports on research published by Politics.com and YouGov@Cambridge which suggests that one in five voters will never donate to an overseas aid charity because they think the money is wasted.

The survey’s leading questions point to a foregone conclusion, namely that people don’t support the target of giving 0.7% of our GNI (gross national income) to international development. But there’s a much-needed debate to be had in what lies beneath public opinion.

Here is the most difficult question in international development circles today: is aid really all its cooked up to be? Raising such a question in political circles draws in sharp breaths from everyone except the Tory hard right. This is the issue, we’re told, where we have to support Andrew Mitchell and David Cameron, not undermine them.

For me, the 0.7 per cent aid commitment is a no-brainer. It’s a long-standing pledge that goes back over 40 years, having been the very first campaign of the World Development Movement in 1970 (one that we’ve never quite achieved). It’s the least we can offer for all of our years of pillaging resources from the developing world. But it’s a distraction from the real business of development.

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While many of the sceptics hold an unfounded view that the money all goes to corrupt governments, they may be partially correct in feeling that the money itself has not been used wisely over the years and that funding goes to supporting the business of aid, rather than helping the intended beneficiaries.

Why is it, after 50 or 60 years of “development”, that so many people continue to be desperately poor?

The answer is that it’s not the money, but rather it’s the policies of neoliberal market-based capitalism that have led to years of impoverishment of the developing world. UK development policies have pushed an agenda that has favoured big business over local accountability and local people.

In practice, this means a solution like large scale agriculture for export has displaced local people, taking away their ability to produce their own food; or in the area of health policy, that big pharma solutions (like vaccinations – as per the much-lauded Bill Gates initiative last week) prevail over local public health initiatives. It means that business extracts all of the wealth, and doesn’t pay any taxes.

We can vaccinate millions of children. But if those children’s families continue to be impoverished because of systemic corporate tax evasion, lack of property rights, and the power of global monopolies, those vaccinations are utterly useless.

This free market dogma also lies behind the cuts agenda in the UK. Having asset-stripped developing countries for years, private solutions, not solid public solutions developed by and for the grassroots, dominate the aid agenda. And this is why people should all be at least a little bit cynical about aid. What we really need are just policies that will enable the developing world to overcome poverty, not be forever at the mercy of a rich world elite who advocate private solutions that will only ever benefit those same rich world elite.

Deborah Doane is Director of the World Development Movement

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