Giving aid to poor countries is hardly a great act of generosity
Rich countries might be going through some tough times but that doesn’t change the fact that they owe the rest of the world
We should be happy to engage with trenchant criticisms of aid – it is important to do so if those of us involved in the development sector are to retain credibility in the long-term. Aid has mixed impacts, can harm as well as help development and takes the focus away from other more important things rich countries should be doing to spur development. African governments should set out medium-term plans to reduce aid dependency, while rich countries need to switch from traditional forms of aid-giving to supporting global goods (like clean energy, vaccinations, security) in new ways.
But there is one argument against aid that we need to tackle head on; the idea that we cannot afford aid, that we are being over-generous, especially in a time of cuts at home. This notion that we are being too generous is an attack not on aid, but on the development project itself, by which I mean the idea that people in rich countries have a duty to stand in solidarity with people in poorer countries who face hardships and injustice, often caused or compounded by the actions and decisions of rich countries themselves.
Using pejorative terms like “handouts” and “doling out”, some parts of the media are mounting a campaign to suggest Britain should be embarrassed by our level of aid giving. But the idea that aid is generous is absurd. Some people, inspired by religious tradition, think it is appropriate to give 10% of what they have to charity, £10 in every £100 of earnings. In 2010, the UK gave not £10, not £1, but 56p ($0.91) in overseas aid for every £100 ($163) we earned as a country. On average, since 1990, we have given even less, 35p ($0.57).
If we add in personal contributions to charities (ie aid that doesn’t come through the government), as the Spectator (UK magazine) argues quite convincingly that we should, 2010 saw 80p ($1.30) in every £100 given to poorer countries. If I gave 80p in every £100 I earned to help people less fortunate than me, who would call me generous? I don’t think many people in this country have that attitude. I am quite embarrassed that newspapers in my country think this level of giving is generous. What would make them happy – 40p ($0.65) in every £100 or 30p ($0.49)? How stingy do we have to be before their bizarre anti-solidarity is satisfied?
But the main point is that giving aid is not actually a great act of generosity. Aid buys things donors want (such as political support and economic advantage, whether directly for donor businesses or indirectly through policy change). The other things rich countries need to do to really show solidarity with the poor will require if not more generosity (as we can turn them to our economic advantage) then certainly greater risk: accept fairer trade rules, adapt rapidly to climate change and resource scarcity by limiting our consumption, accept the employment consequences of a more just arms trade, clamp down on tax havens and force our international companies to abide by social, environmental and accounting norms (to name a few).
Being truly generous requires rich countries to undergo fairly profound changes in the way they have lived for the last few decades. The notion that giving away our loose change is embarrassingly generous would be an odd one to poor people around the world trying to scrape together a living under the unfair system rich countries have established to work in their favour.
It is certainly true that poor people in the UK and other rich countries are going through tough times, as services are cut and jobs are hard to find. The kind of cuts being made in the UK at the moment are both economically illiterate and ethically unacceptable. I watched a BBC documentary called Poor Kids last week showing the lives of three of the 3.5 million very poor children in the UK. It was shocking.
The UK has created a hugely unequal society in which bankers go home with millions while one London council has started to charge children to visit playgrounds. It will take a long time to carry out the radical reform needed to bring it to something verging on sanity and fairness. But these problems existed long before the financial crisis. To suggest that we should seek to help the poorest at home by withdrawing support from people abroad who are much poorer, while the rich make off with their millions, is surely morally indefensible in any philosophy.
Some argue that countries we are giving money to are doing better than us. Well, some poor countries are certainly growing faster than us, which is as it should be – they are catching up to our standard of living. But take India’s annual income and divide it between the whole population and each Indian gets just over $3 per day. Better than it was, yes, but still hardly above starvation wages, and nowhere near the UK’s $113 per day ($41,370 per year). Despite two years of financial turmoil, the UK is still the sixth richest country in the world.
Getting the facts and ethics straight on this issue is crucial not to defend aid, but to defend the very concept of generosity in a changing world. Rich countries need to be more generous not less and, as Andrew Mitchell rightly says, they should be proud when they stand in solidarity with the worse off.