Jonathan Glennie was hired by ODI (Overseas Development Institute)
in 2010 to lead the organisation's research and policy advice on the
future of development cooperation. He is now an independent consultant
and writer. Previously he worked for Christian Aid, first as a policy
adviser on development finance (where he helped develop some of the
now-ubiquitous critique of international tax policy), and then as
country director in Colombia, working on land rights and displacement.

In 2008 he published The Trouble with Aid: Why less could mean more for Africa (Zed Books) and
now writes an occasional column for The Guardian's Global Development
website. He has degrees in Theology and Sustainable Development.


Jonathan Glennie was hired by ODI (Overseas Development Institute)
in 2010 to lead the organisation's research and policy advice on the
future of development cooperation. He is now an independent consultant
and writer. Previously he worked for Christian Aid, first as a policy
adviser on development finance (where he helped develop some of the
now-ubiquitous critique of international tax policy), and then as
country director in Colombia, working on land rights and displacement.

In 2008 he published The Trouble with Aid: Why less could mean more for Africa (Zed Books) and
now writes an occasional column for The Guardian's Global Development
website. He has degrees in Theology and Sustainable Development.

Jonathan Glennie was hired by ODI (Overseas Development Institute) in 2010 to lead the organisation's research and policy advice on the future of development cooperation. He is now an independent consultant and writer. Previously he worked for Christian Aid, first as a policy adviser on development finance (where he helped develop some of the now-ubiquitous critique of international tax policy), and then as country director in Colombia, working on land rights and displacement. In 2008 he published The Trouble with Aid: Why less could mean more for Africa (Zed Books) and now writes an occasional column for The Guardian's Global Development website. He has degrees in Theology and Sustainable Development.

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As the cuts bite, why bother with the global South?

'Be more human'

'We need to be a little more human' and internationalize our minds. Scooter Lowrimore under a Creative Commons Licence

The twentieth century saw great strides for internationalism. Colonialism became history faster than the colonists ever imagined, and a communications revolution made real the concept of a global village. For the first time, we saw in real time the conditions in which billions of our brothers and sisters around the world sought to make the best of their lives.

Perhaps most powerfully of all, the evil of racism, for so long a guiding instinct of foreign and domestic policy, came to be considered entirely unacceptable in almost all fora, even if it remains a subtle demon in the souls of almost all of us.

This is progress, human progress, which we are right to celebrate.

But today, in 2013, we are faced with a serious risk that rather being cemented in our collective psyche, an internationalist vision will begin to be eroded. The wealthy countries of the last century are facing serious and long-term economic difficulties as poorer countries compete for jobs and investment. The ease with which largesse was promised from the bubble of growth, has been replaced by nagging stinginess. Rather than facing together the challenges of fairer shares in a resource-constrained world, powerful voices call on us to turn inwards. This is not necessarily the pernicious nationalism of yesteryear, (although that may be a concern in some European countries) but a reinvigoration of the nation-centrism which has always dominated international relations.

The policies required to set the world on a sustainable and more equal path will be debated. But in my view the most important barriers remain in our minds. While heeding the rhetoric of international solidarity, we remain trapped in a state-centric philosophy incoherent with the reality of the world we inhabit and seek to improve.

Almost all political discussions are framed in terms of the national interest. Internationalist perspectives are an after-thought at best. It is considered absurd and embarrassing to suggest that things should be otherwise. And while this is understandable given the constituencies to which politicians must refer, it remains the major roadblock to decisions being made for the good of all.

We continue to elaborate arguments about inequality and justice based on geography, despite the obvious logical inconsistencies with our professed world views. Since 2007, for example, Britons have objected to bankers’ bonuses with reference to the hardships being faced nationally – joblessness and service cuts. But why does poverty 10 miles away matter more than poverty 1,000 or 10,000 miles away? If Zambia was located across the English Channel instead of France, how long would the British tolerate its extreme levels of poverty?

We know the answers to those questions, having posed them a thousand times. But we are miles away from a popular political discourse that follows them to their logical conclusion.

For example, the British Labour party criticizes the Conservatives for entrenching wealth in the hands of the few. But does Labour genuinely seek to spread the wealth of Britain with the rest of the world? Or is it also engaged in entrenching advantage? To suggest that living standards can no longer rise because of equality and sustainability considerations would be considered political suicide. Instead we hear the typical cross-party rhetoric of ‘competing in a world economy’.

Western political leaders have long professed a desire to see the poorer countries of the world catch up with western living standards, on the basis of human solidarity and also, supposedly, the idea that there would be greater trading opportunities. But now that they are finally doing so, the west seems to be caught off-guard, treating immensely poor countries like India as competitors. Do we want to bring those IT jobs back, causing unemployment in one of the world’s poorest countries? Or should we be boldly persuading our fellows that we already have it too good, and that it is time for radical redistribution of opportunities.

The call of one campaign group to ‘globalize resistance’ was always an exceptionally sensible one. It may have taken the banking crisis to jolt Westerners into realizing that. Only a truly international political platform has any kind of chance in a world of globalized capital in which the 0.001 per cent wield more power than ever. As a colleague at a major NGO told me thoughtfully, the development sector used to be more progressive than the western public, but may now be lagging behind peoples’ desire for structural change in the face of absurd inequalities.

In short, internationalism may be more palatable and persuasive than ever, just as it also faces one of its sternest tests.

The discussions about a post-2015 UN framework offer a chance to boost international cooperation – and to internationalize our minds.  

I haven’t always agreed with Bob Geldof but I liked this quote from a speech earlier this month, 'We need to be a little more human. Less Irish, less British, less Cameroonian, less South African, less Russian, less Chinese and more human.’

That is the challenge. We hope that this blog series will offer some clues about how to achieve this greatest of aspirations. The first step, as always, is to listen. To develop empathy with people and peoples very different and often distant. The second step, is to allow our learning to radicalize policies, and not to be put off by the daunting obstacles. These changes will not happen over night. But while the internationalist vision will be viewed as impossible and unrealistic, it is in fact the only rational response to the world as we now experience it.

Perhaps internationalists will never win outright. But we can constantly mitigate the dangers of nationalism and coax the gradual birth of a genuinely humane humanity. It may sound radical now, and hard to see how to put into action, but concern for inequality across borders should be the basis of 21st century political ethics.

The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI's 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.

Colombia: will peace prevail?

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has begun talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other rebel groups. This has surprised many – the former defence minister was elected on the understanding he would continue the hardline anti-insurgency policies of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe, still popular, is crying foul, and it is not yet clear whether Santos has majority public support for his bid to end a conflict from whose tragedies no Colombian family has been spared. Given the farcical peace talks a decade ago – which saw the FARC grow in strength and the government humiliated – it is perhaps understandable that Santos is seeking to boost public confidence by denying the FARC a ceasefire, as much as it may dismay those who want a swift end to bloodshed.

Juan Manuel Santos: from hawk to dove?

Javier Casella/Colombia's Presidential Office/Handout/Reuters

Santos announced the talks, backed by Cuba and Norway, in August, although he started them in secret soon after taking power. Formal negotiations kick off in Havana, on Thursday 15 November. All of a sudden, his first two years can be seen in a new light. Even before he took office, Santos sponsored radio advertisements that praised human rights defenders, who were dismissed by Uribe as ‘friends of terrorists’. In his second year, he began almost obsessively to castigate the deep inequality in his country. Last summer, when unarmed indigenous groups in Cauca physically expelled government soldiers from disputed land, Santos was accused of weakness. But now it all looks like part of a longer-term plan to prepare the ground for peace.

How will it turn out? It is impossible to second-guess the will of the FARC, a secretive organization whose once-noble leftwing motives are now thoroughly muddied by decades of war and integration with the lucrative cocaine trade. It will seek political reform as well as guarantees for members wishing to re-enter civilian (and possibly political) life. Despite his class-traitor rhetoric, Santos’ clear intentions to open up Colombian territory to an influx of foreign investment and failure to implement any serious land reform are likely to cause tensions.

Nor will the disbanding of a guerrilla force be enough to secure an end to Colombia’s violence. The cocaine trade remains the most potent security threat, investments in mining and agriculture will still be accompanied by violence against rural communities, and a rise in crime is possible in a post-conflict scenario.

But the mood in the country is one of optimism. It feels like Colombia, for all its continued problems and deep poverty, may finally be entering the modern, democratic world where revolutionaries target ballots, not kidnap victims.

Santos has claimed that if this bold push for peace costs him re-election, he would welcome the trade-off. If we take him at his word, it would be churlish not to support such a noble intention.

The case for real aid

NI Special Feature: The Aid Debate

I knew this would happen. The intellectual initiative on African development seized by a free-market ideologue, now listed by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

It is clear what side of the fence Dambisa Moyo is sitting on. The foreword to her book Dead Aid is written by leading conservative historian Niall Ferguson, and her write-up in Time was written by none other than (ex-President of the World Bank) Paul Wolfowitz. In her eight years with Goldman Sachs, I doubt she was a subscriber to the New Internationalist.

Some people think the danger of Dead Aid is that it will lead to reductions in aid. That isn’t the danger. As I argue in my book, we need to set out a plan to reduce aid in the medium term, rather than continue the traditional clamour for aid increases in the face of growing evidence of the harm it can do. No, the danger of Dead Aid is that just when the opportunity exists to fundamentally challenge the extreme form of capitalism that has held sway over Africa, and most of the world, for the last three decades, we lose the intellectual initiative by clinging to an outdated position on aid.

Despite the many flaws in her book, Moyo’s success is a good thing. We need to debate aid. I wrote my book because I was frustrated by the lack of intellectual rigour behind calls for huge aid increases to Africa. While most of my colleagues in the ‘aid industry’ have responded positively, some argued that it was ‘risky’ to question the unalloyed benefits more and more aid will offer to the African continent.

Now they have been hit with Dambisa Moyo, who is selling more books than Jeffrey Sachs could dream of and whose polemic – however far removed from the facts – is gaining ground in influential circles. The risk for those of us who realize the flaws in the neoliberal, market fundamentalist approach is that we stop being trusted by the public as we persist in the same tired defence of aid based not on the facts but on habit, self-interest (if you work in a charity, you are somewhat linked to aid increases) and a kind of ‘something must be done’ mentality.

Different types of assistance

*Official Development Assistance* – the majority of aid takes this form. Intended to help long-term growth and to reduce poverty, it often supports national budgets for healthcare, education and large infrastructure projects. Richer countries have pledged to donate the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of their GDP but few meet this target.

*Emergency Humanitarian Aid* – this is a short-term response to help a country afflicted by disasters such as flooding, famine, war, earthquakes. The fastest-growing kind of assistance, it accounts for 10 per cent of all aid. Moyo and her supporters are not saying that this type of aid should be stopped.

*How aid is given* – most aid is either bilateral or multilateral. A much smaller proportion comes from NGOs – charities or solidarity organizations – though these may also funnel some official development assistance money. NGOs are not the target of Moyo’s critique, though it has implications for them too.

Tempting trap

The main technical criticism of Moyo’s book must be that it is very prone to exaggeration. Hers is not a serious analytical study but an anti-aid polemic of the kind common in the conservative media in the US, where the only facts used are ones that bolster a case, and exaggeration is considered par for the course – after all, the other side is doing it. Exaggeration is a very tempting trap for an author to fall into. A thoughtful assessment is rarely as blistering a read as a no-holds-barred romp through the evils of one thing or another. And publishers (and publicists) want to sell juicy rants. My book on aid to Africa has a plaster on the front in the shape of the African continent. As you can see if you look at my blog (, there were other, more positive, options for both title and cover. But my publisher insisted, and I agreed in the end, that if I wanted the book to sell I would have to bow to some of the pressures of a competitive market.

In the book itself, however, I was obsessive in my attempt to present a balanced approach to the subject of aid to Africa, because that is what I think both western and African publics deserve. In contrast to aid optimists (like Sachs) and aid pessimists (like Moyo), I emphasize that the impacts of aid are complex, some good, some bad. Only when we assess these impacts dispassionately and systematically can we have any real expectation of making a positive and sustained impact on human rights, development and poverty reduction in Africa. I call this approach aid realism. Aid realism means not getting swept away by the ethical clamour to ‘do something’ when a proper analysis shows that what is being done is ineffective or harmful. And it means not bowing to an ideological anti-aid position in the face of the rights and urgent needs of millions of people.

Currently I manage a Christian Aid programme in Colombia. I have worked in the NGO sector for over 10 years but have never been as inspired as now, as I see the way donated money is being spent to bolster the movement for change in this country. Without the presence of our and similar international agencies, the organizations, communities and individuals that make up that movement would be far weaker, battered on all sides by the violence of the state and illegal armed groups, and many might simply have ceased to exist.

Dependence and independence

Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda receive around 50 per cent of their budgets from foreign aid. South Africa and Botswana manage without this kind of assistance.

Source: Richard Dowden, BBC News, 26 June 2005.

We are not giving charity, we are helping build a movement for human rights and justice. Justice for the four million women and men displaced from their homes by armed groups seeking wealth and power. Justice for the victims of violence and persecution. Justice for the 50 per cent living in poverty in an upper-middle income country. Moyo doesn’t get that at all. She seems to think that everything will be solved if we open a few banks and liberalize some more. But Latin America has shown that change comes when the movement for justice is strong. And when aid strengthens that movement, it is doing a vital job. Our programme in Colombia is part funded by the Irish and British governments and publics, and part by the EU. So, yes, aid can do good. We need more of that kind of aid. The big problem is with very large amounts of government-to-government aid.

Moyo’s critique of aid dependency is one of the areas where she and I are in agreement. The harm done by very high levels of government-to-government aid to the development of effective and accountable governance in Africa is one of the great silences in the aid debate. While politicians – from Tony Blair with his 2005 Africa Commission to Barack Obama in Ghana earlier this year – demonstrate an increased awareness of the importance of state institutions in development, they do not appear to understand the harm aid itself does to governments that rely on it too heavily. Moyo does – and the issue has seldom had so much coverage.

Where the money goes

$500 billion – aid from richer countries to Africa since 1960.
$400 billion – left Africa as capital flight between 1970 and 2004 (add a further $200 billion for imputed interest earnings).
$148 billion – leaves Africa every year due to corruption, according to African Union estimates.

Source: Jonathan Glennie, The Trouble with Aid, Zed Books, 2008.

Radical humility

The way to respond to Moyo, then, is not to reel off more misleading ‘millions of lives saved per billions of dollars spent’ scenarios. The western public has stopped believing them, while the African public knows they are unhelpful exaggerations. The aid community needs to publicly recognize the flaws in aid and the harm it can sometimes do. And then it needs to defend the good things about aid.

After which, it needs to move on to more important issues. The irony of this debate is that aid is not really the issue at all. Both aid optimists and aid pessimists exaggerate the importance of aid. No country has ever developed because of aid, and while relatively small amounts of private giving do lead to the kind of programme I am proud to run here in Colombia, they are not going to change the world. Countries develop when they get their policies right. We should be campaigning on tax havens, on climate change, on human rights, on trade justice, and on policy freedom. Although Moyo hardly mentions the issue, it is aid conditionality, more than aid itself that has caused so much damage to Africa. Under intense pressure from donors, the entire economic direction of the continent has changed since the early 1980s. For such a large and diverse group of countries, you would expect a range of responses to the various problems of poverty and development. Instead the response has fitted the Washington-designed blueprint of privatization and liberalization. That is no coincidence, and while lock-in trade deals have played their part, aid has probably been the main instrument used by rich countries to get what they want. Efforts have been made since the late 1970s to rein in aid conditionalities, but they are still just as harmful as ever.

I am not concerned about Moyo critiquing aid; she is right to. What concerns me is the certainty with which she states what African countries need to do to develop. Certainty is also a key part of marketing a book. You generate a scandal and then dive right in. But it is galling to see in this case, precisely because she utters with such certainty prescriptions that have been shown so utterly to have failed.

At a recent debate in London, hosted by the International Rescue Committee, Moyo repeatedly asserted that ‘we know what works’. We don’t know, and that kind of attitude, so common among the donor community for the last few decades, is exactly what we have to move away from.

Now is the time to demonstrate radical humility; not to compromise on principles, but to adopt an attitude of creativity and respect. Now is the time to trust people and their governments and parliaments, for all their many problems, more than blueprints flown in on a laptop.

So I make the following appeal. The pull of neoliberalism has been broken. Its failings scar Africa and shame the West. Development is more complicated than neoliberals (and neo-cons) would have us believe. It is time for a new era of intellectual openness. In contrast to 30 years of clamping down on choice, let the decades ahead be the decades of choice, of experimentation again, and of sovereignty.

Click here to read Vanessa Baird's summing up on the state of aid.

Jonathan Glennie has worked as a policy analyst in several international development charities. He played a key role in Make Poverty History in 2005. His book, The Trouble with Aid, is published by Zed Books.

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