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Effective Aid: Building states, supporting citizens, transforming lives

30 December 2009

Since the release of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, cynics have been lining up to call for the aid system to be overhauled or abandoned completely.

Sajid Javid’s blog, rapturously received on Conservative Home, is but the latest to use lazy assumptions and selective evidence to pursue ideologically driven policies that would hurt communities across the developing world.

That’s not to say there is not a grain of truth in what aid cynics say. Noone thinks aid is perfect, noone thinks it alone will end poverty, and noone claims that aid has never been wasted. Anyone can admit that aid delivered poorly can hurt.

When aid has been tied to right-wing ideology, it has debilitated states. When it has been tied to commercial interests it has created white elephants. When it has been tied to foreign policy, poverty reduction has come second. When it has ignored good governance, abuse and corruption has had free rein. When it is the only tool to reduce poverty, it will never be enough.

These are not truths unknown to the Conservatives – they were common features of the aid system last time they were in office.

But it is a big leap to use these examples to then cut aid that does work – the sort of aid that has repeatedly been shown to help economies grow, states govern responsibly, and communities work themselves out of poverty. The sort of aid that the Labour Government has been tirelessly promoting at home and abroad for over a decade.

We should never be complacent, but we do have a positive tale to tell. Africa is growing, poverty is reducing, lives are being transformed. Effective aid is playing its part in this story.

Aid brings real benefits to real people. UKAid estimate that their programmes alone lifted 3 million people out of poverty last year, including by distributing 7 million anti-malarial bed-nets, providing clean water for 1 million people, and training 100,000 teachers. Globally, 4 million people living with HIV now have access to life-saving treatment – unthinkable a decade ago.

Javid neglects to see how aid used effectively can tackle the very problems – dependency, conflict and corruption – he lazily accuses it of causing. Without investing in infrastructure countries will struggle to trade their way out of dependence. Without investing in post-conflict societies a return to violence so often lurks around the corner. Without investing in accountability and transparency systems corruption is left unchecked.

But in seeking to export a little piece of Thatcherism to Africa, Javid’s proposals are worse than his analysis. By slashing government-to-government aid, he sets out to undermine the one thing most needed in the long-term fight against poverty – the development of a working social contract between effective states and active citizens (read Oxfam’s Duncan Green on this).

This ‘contract’ requires investment on both sides. On the one hand, citizens must be better able to demand their rights and monitor the progress of their government. On the other, states must be both more willing and more able to respond – including by having the resources and capacity to do so.

And sometimes, to prevent needless suffering, others – ie. us – may need to step in when noone else can.

Unfortunately for Javid, no body but the state has ever been able to guarantee universal services, and no state will be able to respond to demand if their capacity is hollowed out by an exported ideology. Effective states need to be built, not bypassed. They need to be invested in, including through aid, not ignored.

Aid is far from the only thing needed to tackle poverty in Africa. But used well it can help build states, support citizens, spur economies and ultimately transform lives. We need more of it. We need it to work even better. And we need to make sure that certain people aren’t about to take it away.

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