New Internationalist

Six rules for real aid

August 1983

Despite three decades of official development aid, 800 million people in the Third World now live in absolute poverty. A fresh look at how aid is given and who reaps the benefits is long overdue. Here Glen Williams sets the scene for Harry Hapgood, a fictitious aid official who proposes a root-and-branch reform of the aid machine.

Imagine Harry Hapgood, aged 32, happily married and with two young children, a rising star in the Overseas Development Office and recently appointed Deputy Head of the Evaluation Unit. Harry’s boss has sent him on a three month tour of development projects in six Asian and Latin American countries — an unusual step, but rumoured to be connected with a reorganisation of the Unit’s functions.

Imagine Harry’s return to the office. He looks sun-tanned, fit and is highly talkative. But after a few days people start avoiding him, giving him quizzical glances, even snubbing him in the corridor. Some are muttering that the man’s lost his marbles. His friend James Dunwood is one of the few still on normal terms with him.

The trouble is that Harry has been uttering heresies. This is unusual for him, and even more unusual within the sedate and tranquil surroundings of the Overseas Development Office. Clearly, something strange has happened to Harry.

Harry submitted his official report only a week after returning to the office. Now, three months later, the report has still not been released. Rumours are flying thick and fast about its supposed contents. The ‘Hapgood Report’ is rapidly becoming a cause célèbre. Why?

The reason is simple: Harry Hapgood has suggested radical changes to bring official development assistance — aid — into line with the needs of the 800 million people in the world who live in absolute poverty. He has set a cat among the pigeons, but — and this is what’s surprising — his suggestions have not yet been rejected. The discussions are still going on.

We do not have a copy of the ‘Hapgood Report’ to offer our readers. What we do have, however, is a series of letters Harry sent to his friend James Dunwood during the course of his tour and some scraps from his notebook. We start with his final letter, written from Singapore. Then we go back three months to Dacca and follow his progress through six countries. We offer you a unique and remarkable account of a civil servant’s ‘road to Damascus’.

Development should build upwards from below, not 'trickle down' from the top. Real aid would help the poor to form their own organisations.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

Hotel Mandarin
Singapore
September 20

Dear James,

I’ll probably be home again before this letter arrives but I thought I should get an outline of my ideas down on paper while they’re still fresh in my mind. You no doubt realise, especially after the letters I wrote from Acapulco and Manila, that my views on aid have been in a state of flux. I can’t claim to have thought everything through properly, but I have certainly moved a long way from the opinions I held three months ago. For the sake of clarity (and to provoke you to respond!) I’ll summarise my conclusions in six ‘rules’ for what I’ll call ‘real aid’, i.e. aid that brings tangible benefits to the poorest 40 per cent of the people in the Third World. You’ll probably find some of my conclusions over the top, but keep reading all the same. Here they are — Six Rules for Real Aid.

RULE ONE ‘Aim at the poorest’.

It’s become clear to me that aid aimed simply at promoting overall economic growth is an ineffective way of helping the poor. In most countries aid for power stations, copper refineries, steelworks, roads, large plantations and hydroelectric schemes simply generates more wealth for people who are already well-off. The poor, if they are lucky, pick up the crumbs that fall from the table. This is simply the long-discredited ‘trickle down’ theory of development disguised as ‘building the infrastructure for development’. lt’s time we saw through the disguise.

We have to target our aid to meet the basic needs of the poorest groups the landless labourers, sharecroppers, tenant farmers and urban jobless who make up the bottom 40 per cent of the Third World population. This will mean more aid for water supplies, sanitation, credit for small farmers, nutrition improvement, basic education and primary health care — concentrating on rural areas. As far as our aid programme is concerned it will also mean an enormous increase in funds for local and recurrent costs and consequently a reduction in ‘tied’ aid.

RULE TWO ‘Mobilise the poor’.

Three months ago I would never have dreamed of uttering such a provocative slogan. It smacks of left-wing politics and foreign intervention. What I mean is that we should support efforts by the poor to form their own organisations so they can have more say in decisions affecting them. Better-off groups such as landowners, industrialists. business people, civil servants and the military — are well organised and can bring heavy pressure to bear on governments. The poor, on the other hand, are fragmented and disorganised. Until they can mobilise their combined strength they will never be able to demand decent wages and working conditions or break free of unscrupulous moneylenders and landlords. Neither will they be able to expose corrupt government officials who syphon off the public resources meant to relieve poverty. And if were really serious about combatting poverty, can we remain aloof from efforts by the poor to gain some say in the decisions affecting their lives? I doubt it.

The question is whether government-to-government aid can be used to help mobilise the poor. In most countries the answer is no, but there may be ways around that problem (see Rule 4!).

RULE THREE ‘Fit aid to countries’.

I think we’d agree that aid is more likely to reach the poorest groups in countries with the least corruption and the most efficient means of sharing the available land, water, capital etc. But, paradoxically, the countries that score best on those criteria happen to be those which we in the West are loath to help because they have the ‘wrong’ political colour (ie. socialist) countries like Vietnam. Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia. If the purpose of aid is the relief of poverty, surely we should give more in countries where it is most likely to be effective? I wouldn’t suggest that we should stop all aid to countries with corrupt or inefficient governments, but simply that we should tailor our aid to what particular countries can usefully absorb. An irrigation scheme in, say, the Philippines is much less likely to help small farmers than a similar scheme in Vietnam. But a primary health care programme in the Philippines would stand a fair chance of benefiting the poor because it offers less opportunities for corrupt officials and powerful landowners to use it for their own benefit.

RULE FOUR ‘Rebuild the aid machine.

Trying to follow these new rules would have far-reaching consequences for the way we administer aid funds, and I’ll spell these out in detail in my official report. Here I’d like to touch on just one new idea a way of directing more government aid money to people’s organisation in the Third World:

women s groups, trade unions, co-operatives, peasant movements etc. These organisations are the real ‘cutting edge’ of development, but they get very little outside support. One way of helping them would be to channel more government aid through our own voluntary agencies and trade unions, provided they were willing to take on the added responsibility (which isn’t certain).

But I also suggest we explore an alternative first raised in the second Brandt Report Common Crisis, namely, an international development agency funded by money from several governments but independent of both governmental and UN control. Such an agency would have the flexibility and independence of a non-governmental agency but would not have to devote any resources to raising money from the general public. A variation on this alternative would be a non-governmental agency funded by an annual grant from only one government, somewhat along the lines of the Inter-American Foundation.

RULE FIVE ‘Abolish sham aid’.

By ‘sham aid’ I mean funds systematically creamed off the aid budget to subsidise firms trying to win contracts to supply steel mills, copper refineries, aircraft etc to Third World governments. The French started this practice and now many other countries including us have followed suit. It’s a deplorably cynical practice and we all agree it should be stopped, but how? Imagine the hue and cry from employers and trade unions if we simply stopped these subsidies overnight. But surely we could persuade Treasury to separate aid from export subsidies. If our firms still need subsidies to be able to compete internationally, then let the Department of Trade handle them. At least that would end the farce of subsidised trade posing as development aid to the poor.

RULE SIX ‘Have an independent audit’.

Our aid budget is ultimately the taxpayers money. We know from recent surveys that most people are in favour of aid, but they do expect it to reach the poorest people. Now although we don’t know exactly how much aid directly benefits the poorest 40 per cent, it is certainly only a small proportion. What we need is an ‘aid audit’, carried out regularly and with all the rigour and impartiality of an accountancy firm checking a company’s annual accounts.

I don’t mean an expansion of our present practice of contracting work out to consultancy firms, research bodies and universities. Too many of those people pull their punches far too often. After all, they don’t want to lose favour with us, because we provide their bread and butter! No, I suggest we look further, to our own critics — the individuals, groups and organisations within the ‘development lobby’ who have already shown some independence of mind by taking us to task over aspects of our aid programme. Rather than viewing these people as mere nuisances, why not treat them as allies for a change?

We also need to rethink what precisely we are evaluating. We need standard indicators of ‘real aid’, things we can measure to show whether or not poverty is declining as a result of aid. These would include the infant mortality rate, the calories available compared with requirements, the literacy rate, the availability of safe drinking water and average life expectancy.

I don’t deny that using these criteria for real aid’ would cause havoc in our administration. But has anyone ever come up with a better way of judging whether or not aid is helping to reduce poverty? Not to my knowledge.

There you have them in outline — Six Rules for Real Aid. You may find them simplistic. You will certainly find them provocative. They certainly could not be implemented overnight. I expect they’ll cause much gnashing of teeth in the office, but the issues are urgently important and must be brought out into the open. I’m looking forward to discussing them with you soon.

All the best, Harry.

This special report appeared in the reaching the poorest - six rules for real aid issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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