Read the tabloids or listen to UKIP comments on the matter, and you’ll find a recurring argument against development aid: it doesn’t work, because too much of it is siphoned away to line to pockets of petty officials. We should therefore cut our aid, and drop the 0.7% pledge.
There’s half a point there. Aid money can go astray, there’s no doubt about that. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should cut it, unless we’re just using corruption as an excuse to cut something we don’t value. If too much aid isn’t getting through, then we need to work harder to make aid accountable.
After all, who is most let down when aid goes missing – the taxpayers who didn’t get value for money, or the poor communities who didn’t get the clinic or school that they needed? I’d argue it’s the latter, which is why just dropping the idea of aid isn’t good enough. It’s the easy and convenient thing to do, but not the right thing.
It’s also important to note that bribery works both ways. There’s the corrupt official who takes the bribe, but there’s also the corrupt agency that offers it. Or if not a corrupt agency, then one that’s being negligent with its funds.
One way to improve aid is to work on transparency. If aid agencies declare what they’re funding, then communities can hold them to account. Donor countries can look for results and see if their taxes are being well spent. And citizens in recipient countries can ask the authorities difficult questions if the funding doesn’t come through.
However sensible that sounds, it’s not actually common practice. Most official aid agencies don’t give clear accounts of what they’re funding and for whom, despite repeatedly promising to do so. That’s why the Publish What You Fund campaign exists, and why they compile the Aid Transparency Index.
The Index ranks 68 big agencies across a series of criteria, assessing how much of their funding they publish, how regularly they publish it, and how accessible it is. Out of the 68, just 7 are ranked ‘very good’. Top of the class is the UNDP, which scores 90%. Second is Britain’s Department for International Development on 88%, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation third.
Britain’s aid agency is something to be proud of then. Remind people of this when you hear the usual arguments about aid being useless.
Before we get too excited though, DFID isn’t the only department of the government that disburses aid. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) are also ranked here. The FCO scores a less impressive 35%, and the MOD is 60th in the list with a ‘very poor’ 9%. (Obviously the MOD can’t declare everything they do, but they can do a whole lot better than 9% – the US military doesn’t score nearly that badly.) DFID is by far the main source of aid, but it is concerning that the current coalition want to see more aid diverted from DFID to the MOD. That would be a backwards step for aid transparency.
What’s important here is that ordinary citizens, in both rich and poor countries, can see what is being funded and where. That allows comparisons to reality of the ground, and it makes it less likely that money will go astray. It also means that if our aid money were going to building coal power stations, we’d know about it and could voice our concerns.