February 15, 2011Doug Hadden
Entertainer and activist Bono tells the Globe and Mail to forget the past mistakes in foreign aid. “The present aid is working” . This is a contrast to the ‘aid is just a waste of money’ and ‘it’s better to give at home’ narratives promoted by some politicians in developed countries.
As Owen Barder has pointed out: most people don’t need to be convinced that development is desirable; they need to be convinced that aid works. However, rising budget deficits have given rise the notion of reducing foreign aid.
Developed country governments have fallen short of past commitments and now more is threatened. This has created concern in the aid community as reflected by the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network in the United States who pointed out:
For around 1% of the federal budget, experts from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and other agencies are empowered to work hand-in-hand with our diplomats and members of the Armed Forces to help build accountable institutions and increase stability in “frontline” states like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. These professionals are also deployed to help boost private-sector and middle-class growth and reduce poverty in developing countries, the fastest-growing markets in the world. Our development efforts in these countries are crucial to opening up export opportunities for American businesses and building stable, long-term trading partners and allies. Were we to pull back, the void left behind would surely be filled by other countries that do not share our values.
Cutting aid may reduce security in developed countries as pointed out by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Much of the security and aid debate relates to military and government aid to maintain stability. But, it is clear that improving the economic conditions of any country increases stability.
Towards a Rational Aid Debate
Aid targeting the sources of poverty and instability could be orders of magnitude more effective than securing borders and building intelligence and military capacity. Fixing the symptom is typically less expensive that mitigating the problem.
Foreign aid may also have more impact than local aid – especially with so many people living in poverty.
There is no question that aid effectiveness could improve. This is one of the benefits of the International Aid Transparency Initiative. The international community is improving results and leveraging transparency. There is a growing recognition of the power of harmonizing aid with government priorities and the need to untie aid.
But what about the other 99% of government budgets? Is there the same scrutiny to improve outcomes for national investment? It seems as if politicians are willing to promote spending based on inputs (the money provided for projects) rather than outcomes, with techniques such as “earmarks“.
Don’t get me wrong, there remain opportunities to improve aid effectiveness. Transparency data with visualization techniques holds much promise. It might be time for governments in developed countries to improve outcomes for internal national programs too.