Well if the Aid budget doesn’t work, why not cut it? Ex-Aid worker.

The instinctive response to the Liberal’s announcement today (http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2013/coalition-figures-clear-as-mud-20130905-2t85s.html) is to abhor the cut to foreign aid. After all, Australia is a wealthy country and should help, shouldn’t it? After 15 years as an aid worker, I take a different view.
If aid doesn’t work why not cut it back? Let’s also be clear and underline that I sm not saying aid should be abolished, just aired back to the programs that work and diversify ways to assist developing countries. Don’t deny assistance to those in need, find a way that works.
But can one be as brutal as that: does all aid not work? Of course not. If one looks for examples of aid programs that work, they can be found. Likewise if one looks for examples of failure, the failures can be found.
So what about on balance? Has development aid (which does not include emergency humanitarian assistance for natural disasters or wars) including Australia’s multi-billion dollar annual aid program provided results and has it provided good value for money?
In her book ‘Dead Aid’ Dambisa Moyo showed an economic argument that at the macro level foreign aid can often provide disincentive to accountable economic development in third world countries. In my book A Life Half Lived (http://andrewmacleod.com.au/Pages/indexpubs.html#lhl) I pointed to anecdotal evidence that showed the same.
For example, child sponsorships are often thought to be above criticism. The objective of child sponsorships is to bring a child out of poverty. No ifs or buts in this.
Surely then we should ask this: If three million children have passed through child sponsorships since 1953, how many of these
generations of children have effectively broken out of the cycle of poverty?
The average sponsorship of a child is $23 per month and goes for 11.3 years, that is $3118 per child. There are only two major international studies to the effect of this spending showing an average increase in schools from between 0.3 years to just under 2 years in school.
Perhaps the question is whether $3118 is well spent to achieve a small increase in school attendance? You could argue both ways on this. But is this even the right measure?
The better question is not if a child has gone to school, but if the attendance at schools has allowed for the breaking of the cycle of poverty. How many of those 3 million children are now doctors, how many lawyers, teachers, business leaders, community leaders? Has the cycle of poverty been broken? This should be the only measure that counts.
When I once asked World Vision, the organisation responsible for one million of those three million children, they admitted to not tracking that result. They track how many schools are build and how many teachers are hired, but not if the cycle of poverty has actually been broken.
The problem in the aid world is often the wrong measures are used making success far less likely. Consider this: What should be the end game of ‘development aid’? Surely we should be looking to that ‘end game’ and measure the effectiveness of aid against that end result?
Should not the end result be that the recipient of assistance has a sustainable job with a company that pays tax to a responsible government that uses that tax to build hospitals and schools? Does that sounds idealistic and naïve? This is what exists in Australia, US, UK and others, so why shouldn’t that be the objective for Sierra Leone, or Democratic Republic of
Congo?
Like with child sponsorships using the wrong macro measure, all development aid (which does not include emergency humanitarian aid) does not measure itself against the long term objective.
In the decade and a half with the Red Cross, the United Nations I read and wrote many reports justifying how much money was spent in development programs. Implementation rate was the key measure. ‘We were given $100 million, we spent $97 million and therefore the 97% implementation rate was successful’. No mention of results of spending.
But when we look to many of the recipients of aid, after half a century and multi-billion dollar interventions, many countries remain poor. Aid did not work. I have seen wasted aid on expatriate staff on short term programs that fail when the expatriate leaves. I have seen millions spent by the United Nations on expatriate staff salaries (including my own) that counted as ‘aid’ even when that salary doesn’t even enter the recipient country.
There are some success stories, largely those countries that have taken a non-aid based economic growth model for poverty alleviation, but for many countries the aid program comes closer to meeting Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.
So doesn’t it make more sense to redirect aid money that doesnt work to budgets that encourage trade and long term employment? This does require more effort to ‘pick winners’ rather than allowing failed program’s to continue.
Aid: If it doesn’t work, why not cut it? If trade has worked, why not encourage that instead?
Andrew MacLeod worked as an aid worker for the Red Cross in Yugoslavia and
Rwanda in the 1990s and for the UN in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other places in
the 2000’s. He is the author of ‘A Life Half Lived’ published this year by New
Holland Press.

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2 Replies to “Well if the Aid budget doesn’t work, why not cut it? Ex-Aid worker.”

  1. I should note before replying that I am currently on an Asutralian aid program linked with the Red Cross, hence any inherent bias.
    I don't disagree with the 'if it's broke, don't do it' premise.
    However, it does seem fallacious to presume that poor measurement method necessarily equates to poor outcomes – poor planning, yes, but all it means is that the results cannot be reliably reported.
    The flip-side is asking what proportion of the resources available for 'aid' should be devoted to measurement (either for improvement or demonstration of effect) as opposed to 'doing' the aid is question – just ask donors how much they're prepared to have devoted to overheads & you'll see it's likely to be a slim percentage.
    Finally, why focus exclusively on aid – a remarkable amount of business, finance, sport, etc gets vast amounts of resourcing poured in for limited (or unverifiable) results for the same reasons that folks & governments give to aid endeavours (feels good, 'easy' way to help, political considerations).
    Sorry, Andrew – aside from the opening premise, left unconvinced… J

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