Why do we lie about foreign aid?

Austerity is part of the problem.

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Britain’s Prime Minister in waiting, Jacob Rees-Mogg is has accused Britain’s last Prime Minister of lying. He says that “one argument put forward by supporters of the target is that if we give 0.7 per cent, other countries will follow. That’s not true.”

But the truth is that Germany has slipped back in the latest rankings because they have used a small part of their aid budget (which is still almost twice as big as ours) to support desperate refugees that they generously opened their doors to. That money, therefore, no longer counts as ‘overseas development assistance’. And you have to wonder whether the German equivalent of Rees-Mogg is arguing in the German newspapers that the Germans have been duped by the Brits because Cameron and May did not take their fair share of refugees.

Meanwhile, our nearest neighbours, Ireland, are moving towards 0.7 per cent and Macron has also set France on that path. All eyes are now on Trudeau’s Canada, while three Scandinavian countries, and that well known global leader, Luxembourg, continue to invest far more compared to the size of their economies. The truth, if we’re honest, is at least contestable.

So why do we lie about aid? That’s the title of a new book by University of Manchester academic Pablo Yanguas. The book is, despite what the title might suggest, very positive about aid, calling it a “catalyst for change.” So what’s with the fake-news, click-bait book title?

Like many in the aid sector (not to mention academia), Yanguas has a problem with simplicity, or rather, superficiality. On the one hand, he criticizes “business cases and the value for money imperative” which has “forced development professionals to consistently misrepresent the political risks attached to publicly funded interventions”. On the other hand, he laments the “pantomime of extremes”, that necessity to present aid either as “feeding starving children or fattening corrupt dictators”. Enter stage right, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

In promoting his book, Yanguas has written a blog post titled ‘Foreign aid is a waste of money – unless it’s used for transformation’, which seems like a statement of the somewhat obvious. Should we criticize him for becoming part of the broken discourse he rightly diagnoses or do we laud him for holding up a mirror to the way that nuance and complexity is erased by the “partisan competition” of domestic donor politics? It’s tempting to do both.

There is plenty of ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ in this eminently readable book by a, no doubt, serious academic. “Foreign aid,” he tells us, “is not a good investment: risks are generally high and dividends far too uncertain.” And yet, in the next breath he says, “at the same time, aid is exactly the right kind of investment, one that developed countries should be proud to make.”

His argument has echoes of the ‘smart aid’ language used by DfID officials and even the ‘national interest’ tone advanced by DfID ministers. On Thursday, we will hear Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordant launch a ‘new agenda’ for aid, which might end up sounding surprisingly familiar to those who have been paying attention to DfID policy since the noughties.

Perhaps we should not hate the player, but instead hate the game. Aid is indeed a political football but those who believe it makes a difference still need to be on the pitch.

Only last week the Sun headlined on a quote from a backbench Tory MP saying: “the taxpayer looks around towns and cities staring at potholes… and wonders why we’ve got money for foreign aid but not for essentials at home.” After a decade of austerity, delivered by a government which, as Yanguas describes, used “aid increases as a way to establish progressive credentials”, no wonder the public reach for the simplicity and common sense of ‘charity begins at home’.

The truth is, we can do both. And we can do them both at the same time. The truth is that aid is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. We should never be tempted to trade off honesty against simplicity, but instead hold both principles dear. Because the truth is, we don’t need to lie about aid.

Why We Lie About Aid, by Pablo Yanguas, is published by Zed Books

Richard Darlington is former Special Adviser at the Department for International Development and Campaign Director for 25 leading NGOs