Monday, July 13, 2009

Patronising populist Tory nonsense on aid

I expect bad policies (if any) from David Cameron, but this one has really taken my breath away:

The people are to be given a direct say in how Britain's aid budget is spent under a Tory government as part of an "X-Factor-style" competition allowing them to vote for their favourite overseas project.

Though an initial £40m will be placed in the "My Aid" fund in its first year, it may be expanded significantly… Under the plan, people will be invited to vote for one of 10 aid projects through the website of the Department for International Development (DFID).
… The £40m pot will be divided in proportion to the percentage of the vote for each initiative.

Here are some of the reasons that this is a terrible idea:

  • Development projects need predictable continuity of funding rather than being subject to political whim – and the public mood is far more changeable than that of the government.

  • Aid works best when there’s coordination among donors, otherwise you get duplication of effort, neglected areas and multiplied bureaucracy for the applicants. The voting public is simply not going to coordinate with USAID, Unicef, the WHO and so on.

  • International development is much harder to do than domestic policy because the policy makers are farther removed from the people policy is aimed at. Most of us in rich countries know next to nothing about the realities of life in poor countries: we don’t understand the great variations in which local needs are greatest and which methods would be most effective. We don’t know about the relationships between the recipient-country government, the local NGO doing the work and the people in the communities it aims to serve. And we don’t know the details of the cultural, legal and infrastructural context that could determine whether a nice-sounding project can really work. Getting well-intentioned ignoramuses like me to make funding decisions is a recipe for failure.

  • ‘People power’ is a wonderful thing, but this policy would give power to the wrong people. There’s a case for voters in Luton having a direct say in how money is spent on services for Luton. But what’s the case for them having a direct say on services for Lusaka? Why not – if it’s at all feasible – get the people of Lusaka to vote instead? Putting a sheen on British political accountability isn’t what the international develop budget is for.

  • Because accountability and finance are linked, would-be applicants in developing countries would start to tailor their proposals more to UK public preferences than to local needs. Everyone will go misty-eyed over a health centre for kids, but who’ll get passionate about maintaining the roads that the medical supplies and ambulances need to travel along?

  • For the same reason, this policy would divert applicants’ time, effort and money on to producing PR campaigns for the UK public.

  • Receiving aid, while it can serve a vital purpose, is also a sign of dependency and inability on the part of the recipients. This is inherent in the aid dynamic, but it can be handled in ways that more greatly empower the recipients as genuine partners. But creating a system of publicly competitive begging could very easily patronise and demean all involved.

David Cameron has been keen that aid spending should be seen as a badge of his ‘modern, compassionate conservatism’. This move takes the best in British politics and blithely shackles it to the worst kind of populist feelgood circus. This policy – tellingly called ‘MyAid’ – makes international development more about how virtuous we are (led by Cameron, of course) than it is about the needs of the recipients and how best to promote development.


jams o donnell said...

Well said Tom

When I saw this in the papers I couldn't believe my eyes. Even if the amount only represents a small proportion of DfID's budget it's a stupid idea

Perhaps they will put it on tv with Graham Norton as host and Simon Cowell on the panel to play his usual Mr Nasty.

Tom Freeman said...

Yeah, not so much 'The X Factor' as 'Britain's Got Money (and the Colonies - Sorry, the Former Colonies - Don't)'.

anticant said...

Charity begins at home. Overseas Aid is throwing good money - if there is any left! - after bad, into the bottomless pockets of corrupt local politicians and war lords. Hardly any Overseas Aid money reaches the poor people it is ostensibly designed for.

In our present dire economic circumstances, 'ring fencing' Overseas Aid is crazy. It should all be scrapped.

Anonymous said...

It kind of looks like the sort of promise that is made slightly on the backfoot, like a promised accident that hasn't been properly thought through and is usually the product of being to contrary of the enemy. Is there something of Cameron we don't know?

Penelope said...

I'm not a passionate follower of British politics, so perhaps my take is colored by my lack of political stakes here....

But if you read the report, there are actually some ideas in there that seem interesting and-gasp-forward thinking.

Like the 40 million fund for small British NGO and charities - or hiring a 3rd party auditor to independently audit ALL DFID programs + aid channelled to multilateral institutions.


BrianB said...

I'm no admirer of the Tories (I have never voted Tory in my long life) but in fact the Tory policy paper on aid and development is an impressive and carefully thought-through document, with the solitary exception of this misconceived proposal to have a popular vote on which of a short-list of aid projects should receive extra money, on which I have made similar comments here. The paper includes commitments to base aid and development policies (two separate things) on the same basic principles as those of the present government and pays a well deserved tribute to the work being done by the Department for International Development (DFID) which is widely regarded as the world's leading aid agency.

The remarks by 'Anticant' are inspired by shameful Daily Mail-type prejudice and what appears to be an extraordinarily out-of-date idea about modern aid practices and policies. No-one with any glimmering of understanding of what grinding poverty means to millions of people in the poorest parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America could write in such terms about the overwhelming obligation to continue the effort to tackle this terrible human tragedy, whatever our current economic difficulties. Even the Tories understand and accept that, to their great credit.