More aid?

0.7%
The target of 0.7% of GNP dedicated to aid was established in 1970 during a period when the post-colonial world was energetic with developmental nationalism. Since that year, the ‘point-seven’ figure has become something of a talisman for developmental optimism. It became a key reference for more progressive states during the politics of the New International Economic Order; it became the line in the sand during the more adversarial Thatcher/Reagan hard-nosed neoliberalism of the 1980s. And, since the setting of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, it has been a marker of developed state commitment to a world in which half as many people live on less than $1.25 a day.[1]

In 2015, the Western states that have made the MDGs the core of their development politics will have to manage failed objectives. The MDGs will not be achieved and indeed, even since the G8 ‘development summit’ of 2005, it was clear that the kind of ‘resource push’ required to meet MDG targets would not be forthcoming. Some targets have been closer to fulfilment than others, and some countries have met some of the targets. The MDGs have certainly worked to motivate donors states and generate influential intergovernmental norms. But, the goals will not be reached. Currently, a High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda is working to set out an agenda which will try to take the positives from the 2015 targets and elaborate a prospective view in which aid will very likely play a central role.

Whether the 0.7% target endures another shift in the global development architecture remains to be seen. But, powerful states such as the UK and US (both of whom have never met this target) still seem disposed to evoke this magic ratio.

Aid and poverty
There is a widely-held belief that more aid means more development. It is this common sense that drives the ‘polite adversarialism’ that takes place between the major development agencies in the UK and the Coalition government: ‘we appeal to you on behalf of the British people to raise the aid budget’. Throughout the economic crisis development agencies have worked hard to make a case for aid, fearing that when people and the Government feel the pinch of austerity, the aid budget might be seen as an easy one to cut back.

Thus, during the recession, NGOs have developed headline statistics about how aid has directly put children in school, saved lives, fought against disease. For example, a Debt AIDS Trade in Africa (DATA) report dedicates a whole page to a headline statistic portraying a decline in infant mortality in Kenya. The clear implication is that this has happened as a result of aid to Kenya. But, the report from which the statistic is derived (a World Bank research report cautiously written by economists)[2] makes no such claim. Indeed, the authors warn: ‘it is difficult to definitively attribute a causal effect to particular interventions’, interventions here meaning different modalities of aid. Indeed, the period during which the reduction has taken place (2003-2008) has witnessed a very changeable set of aid commitments from Western donors. As the authors state, there is no clear causality and much of the reduction might be a result of the ‘environmental’ influence of generalised economic growth. Specific country case studies frequently reveal complex stories in which aid and poverty reduction hardly serve as cause and effect. Indeed, as Cunguara and Hanlon show, in Mozambique (which has had high and sustained levels of aid) poverty for the majority of rural and extremely poor people has risen. One could tell a similar story for ‘aid darling’ Tanzania.

The point is: the relationship between aid levels and life-saving or life-enhancing outcomes expressed as headline statistics is as much a statement of faith as it is causality. This is not to argue that ‘aid is bad’ or that it has negligible effect on some people’s lives. But, if one thinks about aid as a ‘chain’, it is evident that cause and effect are never straightforward.

‘Aid’ can mean very different things: from emergency relief (strong cause-effect) to general budgetary support (weak cause and effect). Aid is a practice that now involves a broader variety of agencies than ever before: donors states (in their diversity), multilateral organisations (such as the World Bank and organisations within the United Nations), development NGOs, churches, and private development organisations/initiative such as the Global Fund which go under one of the uglier neologisms of recent years: philanthrocapitalism. Then, factor in the diversity of recipient states; stir in the per diems associated with aid projects, consultancy fees and enhanced salaries of development professionals, and finally add in a sprinkling of local political dynamics which are always central to questions of implementation and you get… The only honest answer to the question how does aid generate development is: we don’t know for sure and the answer requires empirical research, not generalisation.

There is a second cautionary point regarding aid that follows from the one above. This is that poverty reduction is too great a social project adequately to be encompassed within discussions of ‘point-seven’. Poverty reduction in African countries would be – to borrow from Karl Polanyi – a great transformation. It would necessarily involve substantive social change of the kind that historians would describe as epochal or even revolutionary. Interestingly, the main engine of global poverty reduction –China – is often described in epochal terms, but not with reference to aid. There is no analogous narrative for Africa (where so much of the aid narrative is focussed); rather, there are the faith-statements about point-seven, shaky statistical inferences, and vignettes of small-scale welfare imprvement.

China (and India) both contain millions of extremely poor people. But, especially in China, the numbers of extremely poor have been reduced massively, to the extent that taking these two countries out of the picture leaves a far more pessimistic story about the impact of globalisation on poverty. But, what makes China important in terms of poverty reduction is the nature and rate of pace of its capitalist development, not its aid and not its poverty reduction strategy. It would be risky indeed to start comparing China with other countries, but there is a historic truism that China instantiates very strikingly: structural poverty reduction is the outcome of capitalist transitions that generate sustained economic growth. The questions about poverty in this context change from ones related to the amount and quality of aid to the ability of capitalism to generate growth and the ability of popular organisations to socialise more of the surplus generated by capitalist production.

Aid and esteem
Western states have been remarkably bad at achieving even a 0.7% GNI level of aid; aid itself has complex relationships with poverty reduction; achieving the magic point-seven will not make a big difference to mass chronic poverty; and much of the most significant poverty reduction has taken place as a result of capitalist development which has not centrally relied on aid. From a campaigning point-of-view, the obvious question is: why does point-seven and campaigning for more (and better) aid remain a lodestone for the major campaign organisations?

My starting point here is the strong association between aid and generosity. Historically, aid is the grandchild of the Victorians: charity and mission. Now expressed through mixtures of humanitarianism, self-esteem, and self-interest, ‘aid’ has become a marker of national virtue: both in government and in the public sphere. On-going and unmet commitments to point-seven matter because of the ‘halo effect’ of expressing a commitment to this number. It is an easy win for a government that has been generally so contemptuous of the poor as it prospectively commits over £1 trillion to bank bailouts whilst cutting back on social provision for the poorest and politically weakest.[3] Also, for major campaign organisations, the evocation of a generous British public is the mainstay of campaigning and fundraising. And, more generally, aid is likely to be the main or only way that people can express their concern for poor and distant others. This is the way that major campaign organisations frame development: suffering-donation-relief. And this connection is, by analogy, shifted on to government when it makes commitments to maintain or increase aid budgets.

The focus on aid leads the public to think that ‘we’ (the Government and major development NGOs) give a lot more aid that we do. And, discussions about what one might expect from aid are almost entirely absent. Aid is almost an article of faith in the British polity in that, like mystical beliefs, cause (aid) and effect (poverty reduction) are connected by an unknown process. But, in a sense the cognitive ‘gap’ doesn’t matter. This is because discussions of aid are largely discussions about the moral standing and political agendas of the UK Government, the campaigning energies of NGOs, and the desire of ordinary people to feel generous or connected to those who seem to suffer terribly but also appear remote and unconnected except through the aid relationship.

Furthermore, as campaign NGOs develop increasingly commercialised appeals – treating people as consumers as much as politically-motivated agents – appeals for aid have been couched in what Lilie Chouliaraki calls a ‘post-humanitarian’ consumerist sensibility in which one does good to feel good. The apogee of this is the aid-commodity-brand Product RED. Aid is cool.

A world without aid?
My argument is that aid is to a large extent a sideshow to capitalist development and the political struggles that attempt to make this form of development reasonably equitable and socially democratic. It seems striking to me how – in the context of a large, complex, and contradictory body of evidence that suggests the relationship between aid and poverty reduction is hardly straightforward – the aid-poverty reduction relationship is framed by Government and campaign organisations as a ‘tight causality’. And, I think the persistence of faith in aid is largely driven by a certain kind of ‘esteem indicator’ concerning the moral content of our Government and our public sphere.

Is this an argument for the abolition of point-seven and aid campaigning?  My argument would be ‘yes’ to the former and ‘no’ to the latter.

Point-seven (and the kind of politics within which it is embedded) is now too strongly associated with a discourse about virtuous donorship and its mystical effects, as outlined above. Point-seven has been connected to fantastical narratives of saving poor strangers in which the scope for agency by recipients (often defined by another mystical category: ‘the poor’) is miniscule and in which the scope of possibility for donors to save millions is vastly exaggerated. To put it bluntly: mass chronic poverty is not a result of aid shortfalls; it is a result of harsh conditions of production for poor people, weak social support from poor states, and a range of unjust global and structural conditions.

Which is where the ‘no’ comes in. For some, aid is not charity or generosity; nor is it an evocation of the world’s powerful helping the worlds poor. It is justice. Aid can be seen as a kind of reparation for the fact that so much of the international political economy has been authored by powerful states to serve their interests and to the detriment of the poorest and most vulnerable states. In this sense, aid should be increased to promote ambitious social transformation and it should be accompanied by reforms in global institutions. Donors shouldn’t expect a great deal of thanks because the aid simply redresses an injustice. If anything, aid should come with a ‘sorry it took so long’ note.[4]

But, the possibility of global redistribution (a better phrasing than ‘more and better aid’) in order to make for a more just world does not feed easily into campaigning. What about the thousands of people in the UK (and throughout the world) who donate, join campaign organisations, and take action because they feel strongly about their connections to poor and distant others?

There is a great deal going on within campaign organisations outside of point-seven. Firstly – and with the longest history – there is the grassroots/community aid appeal. This involves people giving aid to promote specific improvements in well-being for particular communities. This is what development NGOs claimed was their specialism from the 1960s onwards. The narrative is more honest in that it is more modest and focussed often on specific outcomes such as well construction, inoculation, or agricultural support. But, this does little to change donor sensibilities. It is charity.

Secondly, we can note the increasing tendency of development NGOs to become more articulate over development issues that contain more ‘politics’ than charity. This shift was announced most publically through the Jubilee Debt Campaign by those member organisations that connected debt with structural adjustment, odious debt, and unfair trade.

If we have ‘modest’ charity and issue campaigning as ways of keeping people engaged with campaigning who have commonly seen development and aid as inextricably linked, then there is one other more transformative norm less well-developed. That is solidarity. This norm is hardly new: it has existed since the emergence of organisations that supported struggles for Independence; and it is very much present in the alter-globalisation movement.

The notion of solidarity has its complexities and pitfalls of course. But it also offers more transformative possibilities for those involved in campaign organisations. It opens up questions about how campaign organisations in the Global North might contribute to the struggles of organisations in the Global South that have some kind of motivation to pursue social justice in poor countries undergoing often very socially disruptive and exploitative capitalist transitions. If the big development question is how to make capitalism promote growth and how to make growth drive social redistribution, then the big campaign question is: how to make a small contribution to the latter through links of solidarity and support for those organisations that share values of social justice?


[1] Or $1.25 or $2 per day depending on the year and institution. Frankly it matters very little which of these one choses: in each case we are thinking about extreme unrelenting material hardship. Moving the criterion upwards tends to make the world look a lot poorer, of course.

[2] Gabriel Demombynes & Sofia Karina Trommlerová  (2012) ‘What Has Driven the Decline of Infant Mortality in Kenya?’ Policy Research Working Paper 6057

[3] The UK Treasury announced an overall commitment of £1.2 tr. but the actual amounts disbursed and the nature of the spending is less easy to discern. Bear in mind that the besieged NHS has an annual budget of just over £100bn – one thousandth of the total bailout commitment.

[4] There is a position similar to this held within the High Level Panel which comes from moral theorist Thomas Pogge.

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About grahamharris0n

Graham is professor of Politics at University of Sheffield. http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/politics/staff/grahamharrison
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3 Responses to More aid?

  1. owentudor says:

    I don’t consider overseas aid the be-all and end-all of development. Clearly, many of the comments made in this piece are ones I would agree with in terms of the limitations of aid, and the need for something more. But the TUC continues to support the call for 0.7% of GNI to be spent on overseas aid for several reasons. Briefly:
    * we don’t believe the most likely alternative to raising aid spending in the UK at the moment is ‘better development’, we think it would simply be ‘doing less’;
    * the argument that aid is a palliative where radical reform is needed could just as easily be made about unemployment benefits, or, indeed, NHS spending as opposed to improving people’s health – both are necessary. The argument that general budgetary support is weakly associated with reducing poverty has dangerous implications for welfare states in the north as well as the south; and
    * it is important that pledges made at international level – or in this case also in manifestoes – are kept, unless the situation, facts or circumstances have changed significantly.

  2. Mike Bird says:

    I couldn’t agree more that we’re in need of a stronger sense of global solidarity to drive the agenda of global social justice, but I also agree with Owen’s point that it’s wrong for international commitments to be broken.

    It’s worth remembering that the 0.7% commitment was intended to be about redistribution and reparation. It was also based on a costed estimate of how much money would be needed to bring about sustainable economies capable of supporting the needs of the populations in the former colonies of Europe.

    Here’s what the G77 said in the Charter of Algiers in 1967: “The international community has an obligation to rectify these unfavourable trends and to create conditions under which all nations can enjoy economic and social well-being, and have the means to develop their respective resources to enable their peoples to lead a life free from want and fear.” They went on to say how this should be achieved through more favourable and just terms of trade, but they also saw a role for development finance and argued for 1%, which was watered down through the UN negotiations in the General Assembly in 1970.

    As Nelson Mandela said in 2005: “Thirty years is a long time to wait for less than 1%”…

    I’m not sure it’s right to let the commitment go, but I do agree that means to delivering upon it need to be based on solidarity and not aid or charity.

  3. A quaint seemingly progressive argument for aid and eking out concessions from capital. Speaks nothing about the vast machinery of exploitation that corporations carry out that is the very cause of impoverishment itself. ‘Solidarity’ is about fighting the very creators and beneficiaries of pauperisation. The wrong question is asked here: it is not whether there is a demonstrable link between aid and poverty reduction, but exactly the opposite: what is the relationship between aid and the growth of impoverishment. Asked that way round, there is an overwhelming source of empirical evidence.

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