Over the last few months, I’ve barely paid any attention to global affairs, so preoccupied have I been with British politics, from the General Election to the coalition, to the traumatic faultlines in the Liberal Democrat party, to the Labour leadership debate. Even the dreadful, nightmarish reality of the Deepwater Oil Spill only half-registered on my radar.
Finally I’ve started looking further afield again. And I’m reminded of the incredible richness of global affairs. There’s simply so much incredible, amazing, depressing, colourful shit going on in the world – so I’m a bit ashamed of focusing so squarely on domestic politics. [disclaimer: I think part of the reason I've started paying attention to international affairs again is the extent to which I've got pissed off with the tiring minutiae of being in opposition again; it really does suck having to be endlessly negative about what the government does, even when some of it has merit). So as the dust settles, and the oil spill dissipates, I finally find myself getting excited about events in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Kenya, Pakistan, China and, of course - inevitably - Israel and Palestine. There'll be much more on this, energy permitting, on the blog over the next week or so.
Let's start with a few thoughts on aid. It's a striking issue right now, with much debate about the government's decision to ringfence international development spending, and the fact that the flooding in Pakistan - and the indelicate diplomacy of our PM - has bounced the otherwise frugal David Cameron into offering an additional 10m of financial support to the water-ravaged country.
The decision to ringfence spending is, of course, political - but it's also entirely proper, and one of the few Tory decisions I wholeheartedly support (there are others, incidentally, but that's for another post). Andrew Mitchell, who is heading up the DfID is - on the basis of this fascinating portrait in last week's New Statesman - a thoroughly decent seeming guy, even if he's traditionally perceived as being on the right of the Tory party.
"These are countries that export people . . . who put themselves into the hands of the modern-day equivalent of the slave trader, into a leaky boat, and cross hundreds of miles of ocean in the hope of tipping up on a European shore - these are not feckless benefit seekers . . . They are often the brightest and the best in those societies, who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families. How much better to persuade them, with international development and international support [for] their own country, that there’s a future for them there?”
And yet: Aid is contentious. Aid is expensive. Aid doesn’t always work. It can be – any development worker will tell you this — pretty depressing. But there are some fighting that perception. “Aid is only depressing”, Chris Blattman asserts on his excellent blog, “if you start off with the wrong expectations”. He makes five points, all of which are worth reading. Here’s an excerpt – go to his blog to read the rest:
When you throw gobs of money and people at an economy, there are going to be side effects. Some of them will be bad. Some will surprise you. The main difference between prescription drugs and aid is that, when we give countries aid, no one makes us give them a four minute speech telling them that aid may cause rashes, stomach pain, and erectile dysfunction.
Failure happens. In all big systems. Hollywood brought us Star Wars Episode One. The private sector brought us Google Wave. Western medicine brought us bleeding. In aid, the state of our knowledge is a little closer to bleeding than web programming. That’s actually what makes studying aid so different: we’re going to learn a tremendous amount in our lifetimes.
Most of the failures are small, while the victories are huge
So, the failures. Despite the hefty (and deserved) aid package he’s getting, Zardari has been raising his own doubts about the extent to which the West, despite its best efforts, can effect positive change in distant communities. The subject of Afghanistan is, of course, not a straightforward question of aid – any investment in a society which is accompanied by military force raises immediate and necessary questions. But the progress of the Western effort in Afghanistan continues to be hampered by doubts and failings, and as Zardari indicates, by a clear failure “to win hearts and minds”.
It’s precisely this which precoccupies Laura Freschi, who responds – here, at Aidwatchers.com – not to Zardari, but to a recent Christian Science Monitor article which made the same argument; that US Aid is “losing hearts and minds in Afghanistan’s Badakshan province because of failed and shoddy projects, corruption, secrecy and waste”.
As Freschi points out, we invest huge amounts of money in aid, and while our goals are far more diffuse (and well-meaning) than to simply shift hostile public opinion towards us, it remains a plank of the justification governments make for investing in development. And it’s a hypothesis which is made despite markedly little supporting evidence. Put frankly – our successes in this field are slim – where countries handing out aid do effect an upswing in their reputation, it tends to be a temporary, rather than a long-lasting effect.
Freschi’s article explores the question in depth, suggesting that all evidence so far points to the fact that “aid could help consolidate stability in areas that are already stable, but is not much use in stabilizing a war zone”, and further, that “aid could help shift public opinion in a country that is already favourably disposed to the US, but is less useful where attitudes are hostile to begin with”.
It’s sobering stuff, and it makes you wonder just how much can be achieved in Afghanistan. Amongst the reams of fascinating information released in the Wikileaks log was information shedding light on what Simon Tisdall described as “an unprecedented insight into the gaping cultural and societal gulfs encountered by US troops trying to win grassroots support for the west’s vision of a peaceful, developing, united Afghanistan”.
It’s at this point, of course, that one needs to go back to Mitchell and Blattmann. We must acknowledge the failings of Aid, but also the possibilities. Again, from the NS piece:
“The fact is that aid, where it is spent well, achieves miracles,” says Mitchell. For him, there is one key statistic that demonstrates the aid budget’s efficiency: “Britain, today, educates 4.8 million primary school children in Britain. And we educate five million primary school children around the developing world, at a cost of 2.5 per cent of what we spend on British children.”
That’s one – of many – reasons why Aid spending, as a matter of principle, should not be cut. But we need to be realistic about what we can achieve, and to what ends. And we need to spend that money, as Mitchell says, well.