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What’s wrong with foreign aid?

3 January 2013

Justine Greening is a robust politician and bean counter who reportedly used extremely fruity language when told she was being reshuffled to the International Development Department. Even though the new Secretary of State has made a strong start in her role, announcing the end of Britain’s aid programme to India by 2015 and suspending bilateral aid to Rwanda, she remains in a difficult position.

In this week’s Spectator aid special, two writers examine the problems with Britain’s international development policy, from its target to spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to politicians’ underlying assumptions about aid.

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Jonathan Foreman asks why politicians continue to throw money at aid projects that don’t work:

One of the more bizarre mysteries of contemporary British politics is the ironclad, almost fanatical intensity of the government’s commitment to foreign aid spending and the activities of DFID, the Department for International Development.

It is bizarre because the Prime Minister talks about foreign aid as if it’s all about famine relief and saving children’s lives. But he and his Cabinet are intelligent, worldly people and they know that the real world of aid rarely resembles the one celebrated in DFID pamphlets and Oxfam ads. They know that most aid is ‘development aid’ intended not to help in emergencies, but to foster prosperity.

They also know that this development aid is at best useless and at worst counterproductive. A quarter of Britain’s foreign aid goes as ‘budget support’ into the treasuries of some of the world’s least competent, honest or responsible governments. Even more goes to multilateral institutions, like the World Bank or the EU aid body that Clare Short described as ‘an outrage’, ‘a disgrace’ and ‘the worst development agency in the world’.

He examines the different arguments used by the Conservative party for aid spending, and proposes a way forward to ensure the money is used effectively. You can read his piece here.

Meanwhile J.M. Shaw examines Greening’s role in all of this, praising her stringent approach to spending. But no matter how hard she works to scrutinise aid spending, Shaw writes, there will always be the the problem that she can’t save money overall when the department must reach the 0.7 per cent target. This is how Shaw describes the minister’s predicament:

It is not only that she must now justify the government’s spending priorities to a cynical public — explaining, for example, why foreign aid is increasing when accident and emergency departments are being closed across the UK, and police and military manpower is being cut. Rather, and just as seriously, the government’s emphasis on expenditure, rather than results, is likely to exacerbate the economic, political and social problems of recipient states. Greening has described herself as being on a ‘vertical learning curve’ in her new job. But one thing she will surely have grasped is that the world’s poorest countries are not easy places in which to spend large amounts of money without causing harm.

Not only are such countries wide open to political violence and corruption, but the use of large amounts of western cash to purchase the local currency unavoidably drives up its exchange rate value, damaging the recipient country’s export industries and so choking off the one tried-and-tested means by which poor societies have actually become richer over the past half-century. Overseas development aid also tends to stoke inflation, forcing recipient governments to raise interest rates, which is bad for local businesses, and particularly bad for people with debts and little income. Aid contributes to political instability, coups, rebellions and civil war, providing a casus belli and handsome personal rewards to anyone who can seize power. It is also an important source of war revenue: the Oxford economist Paul Collier estimates that as much as 40 per cent of military expenditure in Africa is financed by overseas aid.

You read both pieces here. To subscribe to the Spectator, click here.

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Show comments
  • Q46

    Well if it’s ‘just’ 0.7% what’s the worry for heaven’s sake?

    Politicians are good at quoting small fractions of this and that in the hope that the public will not understand a small fraction of a big number is… a big number.

    Unfortunately, the politicians are right, the mindless blobs do not understand, which is why they are beguiled by the notion that raising a few tens more millions from ‘the rich’ or ‘immoral’ tax avoiding corporations will solve the problem of the £2.3 trillion debt, the £120 billion annual deficit and the £48 billion annual interest charge on the debt.

    0,7 is the number of neurones in the average voter brain.

  • Daniel Maris

    I would prefer “foreign aid” to be transformed into “democratic aid” – resources used to back poor people around the world fighting for real democracy (not the fake totalitarian Arab Spring nonsense, that Hague so loves). The more functioning democracies there are about the world, the more secure we are.

  • Alexandrovich

    Has anyone ever seen HooksLaw and TrevorsDen in the same room?

  • Noa

    In the post Empire era we should recognise foriegn aid for what it is:-
    -for the neo marxists of new labour a means of extorting and transferring taxes from the aspirational middle classes to their prospective voting bases in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia.
    – for the posh boys of the Conservative element of the coalition a state funded methodology for buying a few disenchanted UK Labour and Lib-Dem votes. maintaining personal business contacts and pals.
    For all politicians, an opportunity to dump their siblings into lucrative and experience enhancing NGOs around the world, at our expense.

  • barbie

    Today we’ve had the question of our own elderly being means tested for winter fuel alllowance, so the money saved could be used to fund elderly care. We see cuts hitting Councils services, which effect many areas of our country. Police, fire services, schools, hospitals, all cut to furnish the national deficit. Yet, we see 11 billion spent on foreign aid, 55 billion on foreign health tourists who don’t pay, foreign child benefit claimants from across Europe, and governments do nothing. This is what angers people.
    We owe these people nothing; we cannot keep sending money out of this country while we need the money here. It is not our responsiblity to feed foreigners, or our ‘moral duty’, but we do have a moral duty to our own citizens.
    We are not a poor country, we can afford to keep our elderly, but it needs proper policies that adapt to the indigenous peoples’ of this nation not foreigners. We owe them nothing.
    Its about time MPs realised who and what they are there to represent, us, not foreign shores.
    Stop fighting wars which we don’t support or want. We do support our troops while they are there, but the sooner they are home the better. This money could be used to prop up our defences, but in the end wars are counterproductive.
    No, we do have to save money, but its how we do it that is the main thing. Setting about the elderly and causing worry and stress is not the way forward.

  • chan chan

    The developed world has spent hundreds of billions, maybe over a trillion, since the sixties on these basket case countries. And it’s been p*ssed up the wall. Stop it NOW!

  • Wilhelm

    Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Give a man a fishing rod, he will eat for a lifetime.

    Give an African a fish, he will eat for a day. Give an African a fishing rod, he will take the bait off the fishing rod and eat it !

    Many a true word spoken in jest.

  • Wilhelm

    Africa is very rich, in gold, diamonds and other minerals, yet it’s poor. Saudi Arabia is far worse off, the only thing they’ve got is oil, yet they have built cities. Japan doesn’t have any minerals at all, 80% of the land is mountainous, yet they are a First World industrial power.

    Are you thinking what I’m thinking, can you imagine what Africa would be like if it was populated by the Swiss or the Japanese ?

    Ps. There was a programme on Channel 5 recently , Chris Tarrant traveling by train in the Congo, the train was 6 days late and it broke down in a tunnel. Tarrant thought this was highly amusing and a one off. He didn’t join up the dots.

    But as race realists, we know it’s not a one off, Africa is a complete hopeless case.

    • TomTom

      Wilhelm, go read Treasure Islands and see how much is siphoned from Africa to Offshore Banking Centres linked to The City……that is why Africa is poor….because its rulers are Super Rich

    • Daniel Maris


      50 years ago you would have been telling us Brazil was a hopeless basket case, a disorganised inter-racial mess, a failed state destined to eternal poverty.

      100 years ago, you would have been telling us the Chinese are an anarchic people who cannot organise themselves and would benefit from colonial occupation.

      150 years ago you would have been telling us the Japanese are a backward people who need dragging into the modern world.

      2000 years ago you would have been agreeing with the Romans about those uncivilised Germanic tribes in Northern Europe who live in mud huts and indulge in horrible practices like nailing prisoners of war to trees.

      Who knows what the future holds for Africa? At present many African countries are enjoying very high growth rates in their economies. The mobile phone has transformed Africa.

      When you refer to Africa it’s pretty clear you mean sub-Saharan Africa ( I assume you accept Egypt was one of the highest forms of civilsation ever experienced on the planet). For most of history Sub-Saharan Africa has been dominated by dense tropical forests. You don’t get much civilisation in Amazonia or Indonesia either – equivalent areas.

      I would say let’s see what Africa can do. You never know – it may surprise you as the Germanic tribes surprised Rome.

      • Wilhelm


        And a very Merry Christmas to you too !

  • HooksLaw

    My admittedly feeble memory tells me that it was announced some time ago that our aid to India was was to be stopped.

    ‘whats wrong with foreign aid’? Nothing. I suppose if you want the rest of the world to fester and then come back at a later date and bite us (and spill our soldier’s blood in the process) then you may want to stop it. I suppose if you do not want the UK to have a foreign policy and overseas influence you might want to stop it.

    But of course there is the small point that it might be the honourable charitable decent and Christian thing to do.
    It always seems strange to me that the usual suspects who bang on about the sanctity of marriage and keeping it away from gays and the associated importance of the church are the same callous people who are happy to turn their backs on starving and famished children. Such people have a perverse notion of Christianity and the teachings of Our Lord..

    • Davey12

      Not a Christian country any more so do not want to give any more money to pathetic regimes. As for biting us. You saying this is protection money.
      As for callous, Iran killing and hanging people.
      Syria Free Rebels killing Christians.
      Mali, amputations. on and on..

      Were actually very nice people it’s just nasty people like you who want to make us feel continuously guilty. You go and sort out the real nasty people, only come back then.

      My own come first from now on.


      If you bothered to investigate the Aid industry you would discover that providing Aid is not Christian at all, and is not intended to be Christian. We are not talking about helping those who have suffered a natural disaster after all, we are talking about funding despotic Governments.

      Take wateraid for instance. It receives a large proportion of its income from the Government. Spends 25% of its income on TV ad campaigns and chuggers, and then does most of its work in India.

      Is India unable to fund a fleet of trucks with water drilling equipment mounted on the back, and train some of its soldiers to operate the equipment, and then implement fresh and clean drinking water wherever it is required? India is, after all, spending $46 BILLION A YEAR on its military. It has developed a NUCLEAR ARSENAL and has a SPACE INDUSTRY.

      But somehow wateraid are directing most of their activity, and taxpayers money, on drilling water wells in India?

      How does that work? How is that Christian?

      Why does Oxfam take the same approach? Large amounts of taxpayers money. A large proportion of income spent on advertising. And most money spent on projects in countries that have HUGE military expenditures.

      How is objecting to that un-Christian?

      All of these countries could easily deal with the problems facing their own people. They choose not to. They have been taught that the West can always be induced to support and extend the benefit culture.

      There are no problems in the developing world which would not be solved by the elimination of corrupt and self-serving Governments. There are no problems which would not be solved by the rule of law. The West should be willing through genuinely independent charities to support all of these countries in developing the structures they need to help themselves, but giving money to corrupt Governments is stealing from both British taxpayers and the poor in Africa and elsewhere.

      It is not Christian to give support to despots and tyrants. Feeding the poor, a poor created by such despots, so that they do not need to, is not Christian.

      And overseas influence! Don’t make me laugh. What a pathetic attempt to justify the leftist agenda which Hague is perpetuating. We have no influence. Giving money to despots only ever shows our weakness and stupidity. Helping the poor to overcome and overthrow tyrants might well be a better foreign policy – but many societies do not want to overcome their despots. They cannot be forced to.

      • TomTom

        “Christian Aid” is not and does not. It is a front organisation. In Muslim Countries AID is denied to Christians

    • TomTom

      Why is it “Christian” to subsidise other countries ? Islamic Charities only give to Muslims. Nowhere does Christianity urge us to fund Non-Christians

      • Chan chan

        “Islamic charities only give to Muslims”.

        Indeed. It’s ordained in Islamic doctrine, and it’s called ‘zakat’.

    • Wilhelm


      Christianity is about saving souls, it’s not the social work department

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Christianity is about saving souls AND social work. Government can be about neither.

    • burningbeardy

      Here’s some interesting comments (scroll down a bit) on the Sally Army ‘christian aid’ organisation in the USA:

  • Madame Merle

    It is an outrage that the government cuts spending to all departments but somehow finds the money to increase the DfID budget.

    Not content with depriving the population of this country it prefers to propagate kleptocracy abroad.

  • Bluesman

    “What’s wrong with foreign aid?”

    Nothing, I too would like a new Merc and a gold-plated AK-47. So, where’s mine?

  • dalai guevara

    ‘Justine Greening is a robust politician and bean counter who reportedly
    used extremely fruity language when told she was being reshuffled to the
    International Development Department.’

    Justine Greening is lucky she still has a job.


    Almost all the countries which we provide Aid to have a military spend which is much greater than our Aid. Therefore we are essentially paying for the militarisation of despotic states, enabling them to keep their own people in poverty.

  • Austin Barry

    Our bleeding-heart, ruling elite gets a masturbatory pleasure in showing how patronisingly compassionate it is by shovelling taxpayers’ money at foreigners.

    Giving the dosh to domestic charities makes more sense.

    • foxoles

      Only small local ones, though; the big ones tend to recycle it back to government, via lobbying and ‘influential’ reports.

  • TomTom

    Foreign Aid is a reptile fund for bribery. The denizens of the USSR had to work Saturdays free “Subotnik” to provide funds for the USSR to be generous with Africa and other zones of influence-peddling. HSBC and Barclays probably survive on recycled DfID bribes through Cayman and Cook Islands……Every Regime has its Bribery Fund, Saudi and Qatar do a fantastic job in London and Washington

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