Saturday, July 28, 2007

More and Better Aid

Last Thursday I spoke at the Victoria University International Development Society's debate on whether the meeting of the 0.7% ODA target would help reduce global poverty. It was, in my humble opinion, a great debate, enhanced no end by the 'anti aid' team having one very good speaker. Hopefully, VICIDS are going to put it up on their website over the week. If they do I will link to it. I didn't help my own cause much by not actually reading the debate question before I wrote my speech but anyhow, in lieu of a proper blog post, something I'm just too busy to do right now. Here are my speech notes.


According to the best available estimates, almost half the world’s population live in extreme poverty. This is the sort of poverty that dramatically reduces life expectancy. The sort of poverty that significantly harms peoples’ health. The sort of poverty that leads to the deaths of over 10,000 children every twenty four hours.

This is the sort of poverty that deprives hundreds of millions of people of the most basic capabilities; things we take for granted such as being able to read and write.

It is also poverty which exists in a world of plenty. A world which can afford to spend $40 billion dollars every year on pet food. A world which is home to over 800 billionaires. A world where one man, the Sultan of Brunei, could afford to spend $30 Million on his 50th birthday party. A world which spends over a trillion dollars every year on arms.

From such discrepancies arises a compelling moral case for aid; the case simply put, being that the suffering of the world’s poorest is acute while the sacrifice required from the world’s wealthiest in giving aid is trivial in comparison. We ought to give because the cost to us is small – only 70 cents out of every hundred dollars our nation earns, in the case of the Point Seven campaign – yet, at the same time, the potential benefits to others are huge.

I can flesh out the philosophy under this claim in the discussion later if people are interested but for now, with limited time, I want to look at the key question mark that hangs over the moral case I have provided. The question being: does aid work?

Because if it doesn’t – if it does no good or maybe even harms recipient nations – then it becomes very hard to cling to the argument that we should be obliged to give more of the it.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the claim that aid doesn’t work is the argument most often heard from those who believe that we shouldn’t increase aid: people such as Helen Hughes of the ironically named Australian business interest group “the Centre for Independent Studies”.

And these critics have an enviable arsenal at their disposal when arguing that aid doesn’t work. This is because there are numerous examples of squandered aid money and failed aid projects. Examples that they appeal to when they make their arguments against aid.

The story they tell is often a convincing one. Yet it is also relies on a profoundly one-sided reading of the evidence at hand. This is because, for every tale of an aid failure, there examples of aid successes to counter the pessimism. A recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine written by three more honest aid sceptics notes as much, conceding that:

Aid has accomplished some great things. On the health front, smallpox has been eradicated, infant mortality rates have been lowered, and illnesses such as diarrhea and river blindness have been widely treated. Aid programs have improved women’s access to modern contraception in Bangladesh and Egypt and helped increase school enrollment in Uganda and Burkina Faso…In the last decade, aid has helped restore peace and order after conflicts in places including Bosnia, East Timor, and Sierra Leone. In addition, aid can be a vehicle for policy advice and dialogue between recipients and outsiders.

Aid in short, can work, but – at the same time – it can fail: something that happens too often.

Which brings me to the central point that I want to make tonight: I think that we should increase aid, and meet our obligations to the world’s poor. At the same time though I think that this increase needs to be part of a contract between New Zealand’s aid community and the New Zealand taxpayer. The contract being that, as we increase aid levels we need to increase our efforts to find out what works.

In saying this, just to be clear, I should point out here that we are not, as it stands, completely ignorant in when it comes to figuring out what sort of aid works. Already we have some indication of what best practice in aid giving looks like. For a start, the aid that is given needs to be given genuinely – something that didn’t happen in the cold war and still doesn’t happen with many country’s aid. However, in New Zealand, we do avoid most of the worst aspects of so-called boomerang giving. We don’t for example give aid that is tied to purchases of New Zealand goods.

There are also numerous guidelines for effective aid practice in existence, such as the Paris Declaration. And these I think are useful, but they are not perfect and tend to rely on assumptions of best practice rather than proven outcomes.

The aid community also, it should be noted, makes a concerted effort – via monitoring and evaluation – to assess the effectiveness of aid projects. And this is useful – although I think that it tends to be constrained by scope.

What is needed is to compliment this existing work is rigorous quantitative research that looks beyond individual projects and examines whole regions and countries. This is the sort of research that involves health researchers, sociologists and economists.

And this is what I think we need to increase as we increase our aid levels.

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