With proper safeguards international aid can transform the lives of millions, says Mike Coote First the good news. In the 10 general elections I have voted this is the first one I can remember when all three main parties have exactly the same commitments in their manifestos. They all say they will increase international aid to 0.7 per cent of our gross income by 2013. Forget for the moment whether this is enough (who knows?) or whether it is spent wisely (many argue it isn’t), it appears our politicians are at least united in thinking that, despite our own not inconsiderable problems, we should continue to strive to help poorer parts of the globe.
But because this issue does not provide a dividing line between the parties it is unlikely we will hear much about it during the campaign. Politicians may not be questioned on why we should invest in developing countries or why we should support apparently corrupt regimes that may siphon off our aid for nefarious purposes. Hence for much of the often sceptical electorate there will be little opportunity to address their concerns and persuade them that our money can really help the lives of people who worry about where their next meal is coming from rather than who to vote for.
Three years ago I spent a little time in Ethiopia with Cafod, seeing first hand how our money was being spent in one of the poorest areas of the world. I learned that a little money goes a very long way. One of a number of projects I visited was managed by Cafod, funded by them along with Christian Aid and the EU.
I remember Nigisti, 42, a single-mother farmer and her son Gidey, 10. Before the project came to the area where they and 17,000 others live, they struggled to find water from local streams, which they shared with their animals. They only grew staple crops like sorghum and had no lavatory. There was no school for Gidey.
With expertise and some materials provided by the project the inhabitants had built a system of channels and dams that enable water to be captured, rather than cascading away, eroding the soil as it goes. The water is channelled so that it builds up the underground reserves or fills newly created lakes. There is a separate distribution system for drinking water from the base of a spring through pipes leading to taps which are 20 minutes walk from Ngisti and Gidey’s home. They have been helped to build a pit latrine in a separate small building.
The irrigation system allows for crop diversification, giving wider income opportunities.
Ngisti grows tomatoes, peppers, chillies, onions and sesame oil and keeps bees to make the most delicious honey. Gidey now attends a local school for seven-tonine-year-olds, built by the community, funded by the government (but with the project providing a rainwater harvesting system).
All of this costs for each person roughly the amount we would spend on a can of lager each week for a year – a small sacrifice for us, but a life-changing contribution to them.
The beauty of the projects I saw was that they provided investment which changed the environment in which the people lived giving them the tools and education to develop sustainable incomes for themselves. They were spurred on by the help; there were no signs of any becoming victims of aid dependency culture.
But at the macroeconomic level billions of dollars have been given in aid and yet the problems remain for many countries. Critics of aid, such as Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid, have questioned if aid is part of the problem – making countries dependent rather than forcing them to find their own way out of poverty. She points to aid as causing problems such as corruption.
It is right that people challenge the effectiveness of aid as Moyo does. We owe it to the poorest to ensure every penny is spent well. But we need to ensure that critiques are well informed and do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, dismissing the positive impacts of aid because of the problems. The small piece of aid I saw did change lives in a lasting way. Additionally, the millions of dollars of aid that deliver such things as antiretroviral drugs and mosquito nets directly to those that need them are not going to be replaced by locally generated cash for a while yet. In the last year, aid from Britain has provided life-saving antiretroviral treatment to 100,000 people with HIV and vaccinated three million children against measles.
The International Policy Network dismisses the 0.7 per cent as an arbitrarily set target based on what might be afforded rather than what is really needed. But it does provide a benchmark against which we can measure countries. The financial crisis has put pressure on budgets across Europe but it has also increased the need. Around 64 million more people are expected to be living in poverty because of the crisis. Currently Britain gives around 0.56 per cent of national income on aid but reaching 0.7 per cent by 2013 would make us a world leader and hopefully inspire other countries to do the same. In 2008/09 Britain gave around £5.5 billion in aid – which simplistically could be used to change the lives of over 14 million Ngisty and Gideys.
The real issue we must make the next Government address is how to use this aid to create genuine growth in poor nations. This means ensuring our national contribution is spent on encouraging sustainable development and saving lives and not on, however inadvertently, feeding corruption and dependency. Aid can be effective if it is accountable and transparent, and if in parallel we help civil societies develop the skills to hold their governments to account.
The future good news is that, if we really devote our “0.7 per cent” effectively we will be changing lives in a sustainable way.
The even better news is that our own personal contributions to the developing world via groups such as Cafod are definitely making a difference to the real lives of our fellow human beings.
Mike Coote is a Cafod supporter