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Charity CEO calls for International Aid target to be dropped

help in haiti when needed
help in haiti when needed

An article questioning whether international aid targets are as helpful as they appear.

This is an editorial by Andrew Cates, CEO of SOS Children.

SOS Children has always been a charity for thinking and thoughtful people, so I hope you will follow my reasoning here even if you disagree with it. Let me explain why I think David Cameron should overhaul UK international aid and drop the 0.7% target. I think the time has come to look again at the government's international aid target, and find a better way forward. My proposal is simple, the Government should stop trying to manage international aid projects but should replace all its international aid with an additional GiftAid supplement for the UK's International Aid charities. Then the giving public can decide the level and type of international aid, and both government and charities would save considerable administrative costs.

There is no doubt that children in particular and people in the developing world in general need our help. Governments in general give considerable amounts of aid. For example, according to a recent UNAIDS report (2010, July)) around half of all the money given for the HIV AIDS crisis comes from governments. However, most of this government money is given straight to African governments. The rest often trickles through a complicated series of intermediaries. There remains a serious question raised again and again (most recently by Dambisa Moyo, and before that William Easterly in "The White Man's Burden" for example) about whether aid from governments to governments is actually so dysfunctional as to do no good at all.

My own experience living in West Africa supports such concerns about "big Aid". I lived in Cote d'Ivoire through the early 90s, and watched in amazement as the World Bank funded Vietnam's rapid expansion into coffee growing from 1994 onwards which caused world coffee prices to slump (by 70% from 1994 to 2002), and destabilised the government in Cote d'Ivoire (coffee was the major export earner and especially generated funds pay directly into the hands of the poor subsistence growers). The world coffee slump was a factor in starting the Ivorian civil war in 2002.

Dig the facts behind any huge failed manufacturing plant, or posh air conditioned Children's Ministry (so social workers never want to step outside to the street children around them), or behind some inappropriate political intervention which makes things worse (like visiting villages to tell children they have the right to food without helping to feed them) and generally speaking you will either find the root cause is conditional debt (our government will lend you money provided you use it to build this uneconomic factory and use contractors from our country to do it) or government aid, driven by some well meaning target with little real world insight. "Big Aid" does not have a great track record. By contrast "little Aid" helping people on the ground as we do has a very good track record.

But this Tuesday, Gordon Brown speaking to MPs made some alarming remarks about the 0.7% international aid target. He said "As I understand it, the way to get to that target is one-off payments to the World Bank". He added "I don't think that will actually work". Too right, that would not "work" if working means actually helping the people who need it. On top of which, the Government does not really have their own money, all that the Government has is our money to spend for us and many people argue Governments that should stick to doing things which they do better than we can do ourselves. Choosing international aid projects does not seem to come into the category of things which governments naturally do well. It also costs very considerable administrative costs for charities to apply for government funding and costs the government a lot of money to adminstrate it. I am sure many others would agree that twisting the spend around political agendas does not improve things either. If we wish our Government to support international aid, then instead of trying to manage projects it should give a small additional "Giftaid supplement" to donations from the public to international aid charities (preferably calculated on the basis of the actual percentage of the charities income which they send abroad to encourage the more efficient).

Such an approach gives more power to people. The public can choose charity projects which work. And if the percentage Giftaid supplement is fixed at current aid levels, the responsibility of deciding what is the appropriate growth in aid falls squarely on the giving public, as it should.