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