Monday, June 7, 2010

Politicize aid? It already is – and good too


On Thursday, Andrew Mitchell rolled out the government’s first overseas aid initiative – a transparency watchdog – and took to the airwaves to explain the idea. It makes particular sense in a downturn to ensure that taxpayer’s money is well spent but also to give voters the feeling that independent assessments are carried out to guarantee value for their money.

On Newsnight, the International Development Secretary ran into a criticism, often voiced by the aid community – that the Conservatives are too willing to “militarise” aid or to “politicise” it. He dealt with the criticism robustly – but I want to have a go too. Because while these are snappy sound bites they miss a number of fundamental points.

Development assistance, unlike humanitarian relief, is an inherently political business. Long-term growth and poverty-alleviation only takes place when developing countries decide to organise their affairs – their regulatory systems, their monetary and fiscal arrangements, their police-and-justice institutions and so on -- in ways that facilitate growth in the long-term and allow for the distribution of the proceeds of that growth to the poorest citizens. What developed countries can do – with their money, market access, and technical assistance – is create incentives for developing countries to arrange their affairs in the best possible manner. If doing this in somebody else’s country is not political, I don’t know what political is.

Then to the charge that poverty-focus, DFID will now fund a war-hungry MOD. It is patently clear that if the government as a whole is committed to stabilising fragile states, or undertakes a military intervention, then all the departments need to support this aim - including DFID. It is a government department, not an NGO. At the same time there are clear rules for what aid money can be spent on, and frankly also clear limits of what can be done in the most unstable situations. Senior DFID staff like to cite the absence of evidence for the ability to win, as the military would call it, hearts and minds. The military in turn use anecdotal data or outputs (for example, kilometres of roads surfaced or vehicle checkpoints built) to argue that money spent in Helmand does make a difference.

The academic literature is divided on the subject. A large US study found that an increase in certain kinds of quick impact expenditure in Iraq was associated with a reduction in levels of violence, particularly after 2007. But other research has found little or no evidence of a positive association between spending money and violence.

My experience in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan tells me that there is still a lot we don’t know about what works in extreme situations like Helmand or Basra, and being categorical either way makes little sense. Far better to explore the conditions that have to be met for aid to have any positive impact in violent contexts on the attitudes of the local population towards their state. It is often not the tangible results of aid that matter most, but the intangible impact of the way it is delivered that enables a state to resolve its problems. For example, helping a local community develop a common sense of identity, and to take action on specific issues, can strengthen their willingness to stand up to intimidation by insurgents.

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