Context and background introduction

Overseas aid (to the Developing World) has always been the subject of intense debate and disagreement. Why do we give aid and does it achieve its objectives. Aid does not get to those it is intended for or gets eaten up in administrative costs. We cannot afford aid in times of austerity. Aid just creates dependency and lets local governments ‘off the hook’.

Each year the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD publishes a review of aid [1] and every second year, a consortium of international non-governmental organisations published a critical assessment of aid [2] and each year the debates are renewed and continued. There are few topics in international development that spark as much public opinion than that of ‘aid’.


THE DEBATE

AGREE 1: In a world as unequal and unjust as ours is, providing life giving aid is the least we can do given our relative wealth and well-being

There is very considerable evidence that overseas aid does work in terms of basic human needs but on its own it cannot and will not eliminate poverty and inequality. Much of the evidence for this can be found in two summary reports – the UNDP’s Human Development Report for 2005 [3] and theDoes Aid Work briefing paper [4].

These, and many other reports highlight the positive impact of effective aid in areas such as health, education (especially for girls), life expectancy, access to safe water etc.; the value of its impact in human development terms and its limited cost to donor countries. Given this evidence and given our relative wealth in world terms, providing aid is the very least we can do.

COUNTERPOINT:

There is very considerable evidence that, even on its own terms, aid has failed; instead of it being targeted on the needs of the poor, it is used by donor governments for their own strategic interests, not for the elimination of poverty.

Official aid has been severely criticised for its lack of effective targeting of key issues such as poverty, women’s rights, the poorest countries, basic needs etc. and for its use by donor governments for their own economic and political strategic interests. It has also been attacked for its unreliability and for its constant failures to live up to the promises made year after year. Although now ended, many of the serious critiques of aid can be found on www.aidwatchers.com and also in the bi-annual reports of www.realityofaid.org. Two very different critical views include those of Dambisa Moyo who argues for an end to the dependency that aid creates [5] and the World Development movement’s Nick Deardon who argues against the use of aid to support private enterprise [6].


DISAGREE 1: To criticise overseas aid for its very many failings is anything but selfish; it reveals a deep-seated seriousness about our role in the world

Aid needs to be critically assessed if it is to live up to its aims and achieve what people want and expect. Aid needs to be kept ‘honest’, focused and effective. Some of the most serious criticisms of aid come from its very supporters, such as the Reality of Aid international network of aid and development agencies (aid does not target poverty and basic needs sufficiently and it frequently bypasses the poorest people) [17] and Oxfam (aid priorities need to be urgently refocused especially on areas such as small scale agriculture and basic needs [18].

COUNTERPOINT:

Criticising aid is necessary, yes but calling for its abolition on the basis of such criticism is immoral.

In recent years, there have been growing calls for the reduction or elimination of overseas aid either because it doesn’t work or cannot be afforded or because it supports corruption. The weaknesses and failures of aid do not ‘excuse’ us from our obligations to those in great need; those arguing against aid on this basis reveal a deep-seated selfishness and greed; EU regional aid to other EU countries is characterised by similar failings but few Europeans argues for its abolition on this basis. Many of these arguments can be found at the ODI [19], the Poverty Matters Blog [20], on the New Internationalist blog [21] and in the case of Ireland [22].


AGREE 2: Given the proven impact of overseas aid on the well-being of some of the world’s poorest people, attacking it and arguing for its abolition is an act of reckless selfishness.

Regardless of the weakness and failings of aid, there is a very strong moral and self-interest case to be made for it. One of the most outspoken and challenging writers on the issue is philosopher Peter Singer (see www.thelifeyoucansave.org. Along with many others such as Thomas Pogge and Gareth Cullity, he argues that not fulfilling our duties to others in need amounts to living an ‘unethical life’ especially so when the costs of providing help are so small [7]. An equally strong statement of this perspective is advanced by philosopher Thomas Pogge [8].

COUNTERPOINT:

We continue to have poverty ‘here at home’; this poverty should be our priority, especially in times of austerity.

This argument insists that priority is given to dealing with the realities and consequences of poverty at home – especially amongst groups ‘at risk’ (e.g. long-term unemployed, older people living in poverty, the homeless etc. Poverty in Europe is a problem [9]. In fact, 16.4 % of the European population is poor [10]. This view often holds that aid overseas is not good value for money and is a luxury while we have poverty at home; some also argue that we have a duty to help those in need at home as their poverty is our responsibility whereas this is not the case abroad.


DISAGREE 2: Official overseas aid deserves to be heavily criticised as it all too often does not deliver what it promises while creating the impression that it does

Official aid has been severely criticised for its lack of effective targeting of key issues such as poverty, women’s rights, the poorest countries, basic needs etc. and for its use by donor governments for their own economic and political strategic interests. It has also been attacked for its unreliability and for its constant failures to live up to the promises made year after year. Although now ended, many of the serious critiques of aid can be found on www.aidwatchers.com and also in the bi-annual reports of www.realityofaid.org. Two very different critical views include those of Dambiso Moyo (end aid because of the dependency it creates) [23] and the World Development Movement’s Nick Deardon (aid is used to promote private interests and this should be challenged) [24].

COUNTERPOINT:

Agreed, so our priority must be to make donor countries and aid agencies deliver what they say they seek to deliver. We need more and better aid, not less.

Given that aid has significantly contributed to the reduction of poverty internationally over the past 3-4 decades, its critical supporters argue for a radical overhaul of its systems, for a greater focus on human development and social issues, linking aid and debt issues and greater linkages to effective NGOs [25]. Delivering on aid targets (such as Ireland reaching the 0.7 per cent of total income) can hamper aid effectiveness when annual support is uneven and unpredictable as it undermines effective planning and budgeting [26].

[25] Does Aid Work? – for the MDGs (2007) by International Poverty Centre | briefing paper

[26] Irish NGOs welcome positive findings about EU aid(27 April 2012) by Dóchas | press release


AGREE 3: For every €1 given in aid to Africa, €6 is taken back. Arguing against aid in such a context illustrates well the greed of the West

The debate on aid is often conducted without reference to other financial links and transfers. A 2014 report by a group of NGOs highlighted how the net transfer of financial resources is NOT from rich to poor but the other way around. The report details how the operations of the international economic and financial system systematically ‘loot’ Africa[11]. In such a context, to continue to argue against aid is morally bankrupt.

COUNTERPOINT:

Trade and financial transfers are a normal part of commerce and all countries need and pursue it including Developing Countries. Without them, the situation of the poor would be infinitely worse.

Some of the strongest arguments against the above view are provided in the 2006 World Bank World Development Report [12]. The core argument is that although the dominant world system needs strong regulation, it nonetheless promotes and strengthens economic development in poorer countries as witnessed by the recent ‘rise of the South’ [13]. This view highlights the fact that some of the strongest economic performance countries worldwide are now in the Developing World – a reality that benefits all in those societies.


DISAGREE 3: Overseas aid continues to let local governments ‘off the hook’ in terms of their responsibilities to their own people; it fuels corruption and builds up dependency.

This argument is made very strongly by Zambian economist Dambiso Moyo in her book Dead Aid [27]. She argues thataid creates dependency [28] and that those developing countries that have done well in terms of development arenot major recipients of aid [29].

Admittedly, from a different perspective, aid is also commonly criticised by NGO personnel, for much of its current targeting (e.g. the focus of UK Aid on promoting private enterprise as ‘the’ solution to poverty and hunger etc. see the arguments of the World Development Movement’s Nick Deardon [30].

COUNTERPOINT:

This may indeed be often true but the West has never used the fact of ‘corruption’ to dictate policy towards recipient countries; in many cases the West itself is guilty of immense corruption in its dealings with such countries. When it comes to corruption, aid is not the priority issue.

The international NGO Transparency international has published many studies and reports that illustrate the scale and challenge that is corruption not simply as regards aid (this is small change in the corruption stakes). The corruption it chronicles annually involves states from across the world and not simply those in receipt of overseas aid. The ‘corruption’ critics of aid seldom if ever apply the same logic or principles to arms dealing, trade relations and other key economic issues dominated by the ‘West’. Seehttp://www.transparency.org/

For a detailed debate on how to tackle corruption around aid, see the report by the Overseas Development Institute [31].


AGREE 4: Given that we agree that ‘rich’ countries in the EU support ‘poorer’ EU countries, to argue against overseas aid smacks of double-standards and hypocrisy

Many countries, regions, communities and groups are in receipt of considerable aid from the European Union in agriculture, fisheries, infrastructure, community development, education, culture, sport etc. To argue in favour of such aid while simultaneously arguing against aid for other (non-EU) states is hypocrisy – see, for example the cases of Ireland[14] and Malta [15]

COUNTERPOINT:

Aid to poorer countries in the EU is part of a much larger economic, social and political agenda. It cannot be compared to overseas aid – relations between EU states are very different.

All EU member states are party to a series of extensive and far reaching agreements covering a huge range of topics, of which aid is only one. EU states remain accountable to each other and face sanctions if agreements are breached. This is not the case as regards countries overseas. EU support to poorer states in the EU is part of the broader ‘equalisation’ process which underpins the EU itself and which does not exist internationally [16].


DISAGREE 4: Aid is not an effective means through which to tackle poverty, injustice and inequality; it represents a ‘soft option’ for the rich of the world.

Poverty, hunger and inequality don’t just happen by accident or as the simple result of geography; they are actively created by policies and practices, many of them local but also many of them international in origin and scope (some analysts used the term ‘planned misery’ in this context. Aid simply addresses the consequences of these policies and practices rather than their causes and as such aid cannot eliminate them. Aid can only do what aid is capable of doing; eliminating injustice and inequality is not feasible through the mechanism of aid. For an overview of key aspects of the debate, see http://www.realityofaid.org and Debating Aid. [32]

COUNTERPOINT:

This argument smacks of political smugness; telling someone who is poor that aid or charity won’t solve their problem is both uncaring and arrogant. We have a duty to help others in need regardless of other issues.

Referring to the many weaknesses and failures of aid does not in any way diminish our duty and responsibility to respond to the needs of those that are hungry and in great and extreme need. Ethical and pragmatic arguments highlight our obligations to others and not simply ‘others’ within our own society. One of the most outspoken and challenging writers on the issue is philosopher Peter Singer who offers a series of challenging arguments on this issue [33].


References

1] Development Co-operation Report 2014: Mobilising resources for sustainable development by Development Co-operation Directorate, OECD (2014).

[2] Aid and the Private Sector: Catalysing Poverty Reduction and Development? by Reality of Aid report (2012)

[3] Human Development Report 2005: international development at a crossroads – Aid, trade and security in an unequal worldby UNDP (2005) | report

[4] Does Aid Work? – for the MDGs by International Poverty Centre (2007) | briefing paper

[5] The aid debate special report: can we afford foreign aid? debate by Dambisa Moyo and Paddy Ashdown (26 June 2012) The New Statesman

[6] British aid and the return of the trickle-down myth by Nick Dearden (7 May 2014) in The New Internationalist

[7] Summary of the argument see: The Drowning Child… by Peter Singer (5 April 1997) in The New Internationalist | article

[8] Poverty and Human Rights by Thomas Pogge (30 May 2007) United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights | position paper

[9] Poverty in Europe by Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (25 August 2009) | position paper

[10] Poverty in Europe: the current situation by Inequality Watch (26 January 2012) | article

[11] Honest Accounts? The true story of Africa’s billion dollar losses by consortium of NGOs in the Health Poverty Action (July 2014) | report

[12] World Bank World Development Report 2006 Overview: Equity and Development by The World Bank (2005)| summary of report

[13] Human Development Report 2013: The Rise of the South by UNDP (2013) | report

[14] Ireland’s 40-year bonanza of foreign aid from the European Union will amount to €41 billion by the time we become a net contributor in 2013 by Finfacts (22 February 2008)| article

[15] EU: all of Malta eligible for regional aid (7 May 2014) by The Times of Malta | news article

[16] Regional Policy summary (2014) by official website of the European Union

[17] General website of The Reality of Aid North/South international non-governmental initiative that focuses exclusively on analysis and lobbying for poverty eradication policies and practices in the international aid regime: http://www.realityofaid.org

[18] On Aid Effectiveness (2014) by Oxfam International

[19] After the deluge, can we have a serious debate on aid? (12 February 2014) by Kevin Watkins in Overseas Development Institute’s online Comment section | blog

[20] Giving aid to poor countries is hardly a great act of generosity (14 June 2011) by Jonathan Glennie in Poverty Matters Blog on The Guardian | blog

[21] As the cuts bite, why bother with the global South? (17 October 2013) by Jonathan Glennie in New Internationalist blog | blog

[22] If ‘charity begins at home’ why are we committing to overseas aid? (10 November 2011) by Hans Zomer in the Dóchas blog | blog

[23] The aid debate special report: can we afford foreign aid? (26 June 2012) debate by Dambisa Moyo and Paddy Ashdown in The New Statesman

[24] British aid and the return of the trickle-down myth (7 May 2014) by Nick Dearden in The New Internationalist

[27] Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo (2010) | book

[28] The aid debate special report: can we afford foreign aid? debate by Dambisa Moyo and Paddy Ashdown (26 June 2012) The New Statesman | article

[29] Why foreign aid is hurting Africa by Dambisa Moyo in The Wall Street Journal (21 March 2009) | article

[30] British aid and the return of the trickle-down myth by Nick Dearden (7 May 2014) The New Internationalist | blog

[31] Corruption, Anti-corruption Efforts and Aid: Do Donors Have the Right Approach? by Ivar Kolstad, Verena Fritz and Tam O’Neil (January 2008) working paper 3 in the Advisory Board for Irish Aid

[32] Debating Aid by Bertrand Borg, Mary Rose Costello and Colm Regan (2010) 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World

[33] Common Objections: ten reasons not to give money to charity (2014) by The Life You Can Save campaign

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