October 20, 2009
Stimulus packages aside, the so-called “Great Recession” is forcing government leaders across the world to look for ways to cut back on the cost of public services. No sector, or service, will be spared they say. But Carl Mortishead, writing in The Times, reports there is one government office in the UK that—far from being forced to trim costs—will be given a larger budget: The Department for International Development (DfID), the British government’s foreign aid flagship.
According to Mortishead, the DfID’s budget will grow from £6 billion, to as much as £9 billion by 2013. And it’s not just the ruling Labour party that supports the increased budget for foreign aid: the Tories—the opposition party—are supporting Labour’s target to increase the aid budget to 0.7 percent of GDP.
“The percentage figure (0.7 percent of GDP) is a United Nations goal that dates back to a General Assembly resolution in 1970,” he says. But “it’s a meaningless number that sounds achievable and is trotted out at every summit of great leaders as a worthy objective.”
Furthermore, says Mortishead, a recent report by the UK-based policy think-tank, the International Policy Network (IPN), shows that a large chunk of DfID’s budget never actually leaves the shores of Great Britain. According to the authors of the report, Fake Aid, DfID has poured hundreds of millions of pounds into “communications”, “awareness”, “advocacy” and the “promotion” of its cause in Britain. These funds, channeled through recognizable charity NGOs such as Oxfam and ActionAid are ear-marked for campaigning purposes—a large portion of which is intended for school children.
It gets worse, say the IPN authors, because the DfID has hand-picked a select group of 10 NGOs—including ActionAid, Christian Aid, Oxfam and VSO—as the biggest recipients of funds. This, the authors say, allows these organizations to benefit from “considerable budget increases.” In addition, the DfID requires these NGOs to work within the policy guidelines of the department, raising questions regarding the politicization of aid funding.
According to the report, as much as £600-million has been paid to these ten organizations since 2000. Yet, each of the projects pursued by these groups is never evaluated individually. In 2006 the National Audit Office criticized this arrangement, saying it “does not provide DfID with assurance that it targets the most effective agencies to maximize the development benefits of its funding.”
Worse, the report argues that many of these groups are not held accountable for their performance. “Many DfID grants are unrestricted, and accountability mechanisms and performance measurement have been classed as poor by the National Audit Office,” the report says.
A number of the programs sponsored by the DfID, the authors say, often seek to promote a particular political agenda. For example, the Trade Union Congress has received £3.6-million for lobby activities, new staff and parties. The DfID has also given the National Union of Teachers £300,000 pounds so they can become “global agents of change” through development issues.
The authors of the report say that by 2011, the DfID will have poured more than £1 billion into advocacy and awareness. “Sadly, this is not simply bumbling bureaucrats burning cash,” says Carl Mortishead in his piece for the Times, “it is a concerted attempt by DfID to build a national mindset that supports the institutionalization of aid and the perpetuation of institutions, such as DfID, that drip-feed money to the deserving poor.”
“The department no longer sees itself as just an agency that supports specific work projects (drilling water wells, teaching farming, immunizing children) that might help people to improve their lives, but an instrument of political change,” he writes. “It is the so-called ‘rights-based approach’ to development, under which ‘rights’ to food, water, a home and healthcare are seen as basic human rights, similar to the right to life and liberty.”
To find out more about the problems with foreign aid, read Patricia Adams’s book, Odious Debts and Dambisa Moyo’s recent blockbuster, Dead Aid.