Britain is set to become the “most respected and most efficient” aid agency is the world, according to Malcolm Bruce, Chair of the International Development Select Committee. The coalition recently confirmed that it will keep to the pledge of devoting 0.7 percent of our gross national income to international aid, which currently amounts to £7.8 billion.
As part of the government review on aid spending, the number of countries receiving UK aid will fall from 42 to 27, a move widely welcomed as likely to promote efficiency. The government argues that if fewer countries receive aid, it will be easier to keep track of the money, making sure it is spent more effectively.
However, a closer look at those countries which will still be pumped with millions of pounds of UK taxpayer aid raises some questions about the process of selection. India will still get millions, despite the fact that its economy is growing by 10 percent and that it can afford to fund space and nuclear programmes. But of greater concern, many other countries lurk worryingly near the bottom of the Transparency International index on corruption.
The link between international aid and corruption has been the subject of extensive research. When one government gives tax money to another, the money often goes to the authority, strengthening the public sector. For a country that already suffers from appalling levels of corruption the economy becomes worryingly exposed to political pressures, bribery and embezzlement as different factions vie for access to the aid money. This indicates that international aid may not only consolidate pre-existing corruption in a country, but even increase it.
When Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan, allegations of corruption at the highest level made headline news. And yet this is a country which is to have its aid doubled as part of the new budget.
US government statistics show that in Ethiopia, a country which fares much better than Pakistan on the corruption index, in 2008, 88 percent of food aid never made it to its target. The UN also reported that in Afghanistan, less than 10 percent of foreign aid reached its intended recipient.
In conflict zones such as Afghanistan, this can have dire effects as the givers of aid may be inadvertently strengthening their enemies. This worry does not seem to have affected the UK government however as by 2014, 30 percent of UK international aid is expected to go to war-torn or unstable countries.
Aside from the issues surrounding corruption, aid can intensify conflict. Michiel Hofman, the ex-Afghanistan representative of Médecins Sans Frontières, expressed concern that Afghans are “put off” from seeking assistance from any international aid organisations as “doing so can endanger their lives”, since the Taliban regard it as cooperating with the enemy.
So what alternative is there? If funnelling aid through governments leads to greater corruption, perhaps we should direct our money at grass-roots organisations. This clearly violates the sovereignty of a nation state’s government, but judging by recent events in Libya, that doesn’t seem to be regarded as much of an issue these days.
We also need to strive to separate politics and aid. Michiel Hofman criticised Non-Governmental Organisations in Afghanistan saying that it is “inaccurate” to claim that most of them are basing their work on humanitarian principles. Aid organisations are not vehicles of Western ideologies. It would be incredibly dangerous to lose sight of their true purpose.
In such times of economic strain, ring-fencing international aid was a bold move, and an admirable one at that. But we must ensure that the money is accounted for and spent in an efficient and culturally sensitive way. When some of the neediest countries in the world are also the most corrupt, we have to abandon the hope that aid will trickle down through the layers of bureaucracy. To combat global poverty there is no option but to find ways of giving directly to those in need.