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After 0.7% It's Time the Aid Debate Grew Up

03/05/2013 16:15 BST | Updated 03/07/2013 10:12 BST

The debate on the UK's aid budget has never been more polarised. A small group of aid critics use the national newspapers to launch weekly attacks, arguing that deficit reduction should come first and that the aid system is inefficient. Aid agencies and business leaders respond that, actually, smart, transparent aid works well. The two sides talk across one another with no appetite for genuine dialogue, aping the playground politics of Prime Minister's Questions. Now the Chancellor has confirmed the aid budget will be fixed from 2013 at the international target of 0.7% of national income, we owe it to the two most important groups - the taxpayers and the recipients - to have a more grown up conversation about aid.

The way the debate is framed is partly responsible. Asking 'does aid work?' is as absurd a question as 'do schools work?' or 'is government good?' Some aid works well and some doesn't. Sometimes schools fail. Sometimes governments get things wrong. The effectiveness of any one programme depends on a large number of complex variables, and it's simplistic to argue that the failure of some aid, some schools or some government policies negates the need for aid, schools or governments.

Those involved in aid programmes have been too defensive about admitting failure. Publications like the Engineers Without Borders' Failure Report, which showcases where projects went wrong, are the exception. This is despite many development experts extolling Tim Harford's 'Adapt: Why success always starts with failure'. Yet too often supporters of aid feel they are in an all-out propaganda war, driven by the fear of politicians cutting aid and funding for UK NGOs. The Department for International Development is similarly reluctant to admit where things haven't worked out. For a department that is ranked the most transparent amongst its global peers - and under the last government had its exclusive focus on poverty reduction enshrined into law - it's a clear area for improvement.

The silence on failure is all the more puzzling because the field of international development has been one of the more eager adopters of randomised controlled trials - born out of medical research - to find out what interventions have the most impact. An open and honest assessment of what works and what doesn't is one of the simplest ways to improve public policy making. It should enable DFID to advance its aid effectiveness even further and better inform British citizens about how their money is being used.

The denial of aid successes correspondingly undermines the case of the critics. Jonathan Foreman claimed in a January issue of the Spectator that overseas aid is "at best useless and at worst counterproductive". This unfortunate hyperbole detracts from some of his legitimate criticisms. Each year, the UK gives 80 million children life-saving vaccines they would not otherwise receive. Thanks to aid, debt cancellation and African leadership, 51 million more children attended school in sub-Saharan Africa in 2010 compared to 1999. Donor investments have also helped spark innovations in agriculture, such as the Green Revolution, which have had a dramatic impact. Neither vaccinations nor schooling nor investment in innovation would be covered by Foreman's suggestion to focus UK aid on humanitarian emergencies. Indeed the attempt to split aid into emergency humanitarian assistance (good) and 'development' aid (bad) is misguided and superficial. Emergency assistance can be a vital tool to save lives as in East Africa during the 2011 famine, but it can also be problematic weakening a country's institutions. In some cases the most effective way to provide aid is by supporting the government directly - the budget support that many critics deride as encouraging waste and corruption. Budget support can be an efficient way of ensuring universal public service delivery and preventing the build-up of parallel and duplicative institutions. In its first year, the UK-supported Free Health Care Initiative in Sierra Leone reduced by 61% the number of women dying from pregnancy complications at health centres.

The factual inaccuracies continue with a re-writing of the history of the East Asian Tiger economies. South Korea received a total of $13 billion in official development assistance between 1945 and the late 1990s to help rebuild its economy. Taiwan received an average of $100 million from the United States each year between 1950 and 1965, equivalent to almost 10% of GDP. East Asia's progress was driven by strong institutions and political will, but foreign assistance played a catalytic role. Indeed, South Korea and Taiwan are now both aid donors.

Critics often use numbers dating back to when African countries gained Independence, ignoring the huge amounts of aid that was wasted during the Cold War - something all sides agree on. To caricature: much of Cold War aid was used to secure political and economic influence, including propping up some brutal dictators, not to help alleviate extreme poverty. Since 2000, in part because of the Millennium Development Goals framework, aid has become more poverty focused. Out of African 14 countries that qualified for debt relief, do not rely on natural resources and were conflict-free in the 2000s, nine are on track to halve extreme poverty by 2015 compared to 2005. Child mortality in the group is down by 22%. This was funded by a large increase in domestic resources due to GDP growth averaging 6% and foreign investment sharply increasing, and by a 41% increase in aid.

In the UK this was facilitated by creating DFID with a seat at the cabinet table and by increasing spending through it. DFID reported that in 2011/12 they supported 5.3 million children (almost half of them girls) to go to primary school and prevented 2.7 million children and pregnant women from going hungry. Nobody has forensically disputed the accuracy of these numbers. Indeed, it would be one of the greatest government hoaxes in history if DFID's results were proven to be widely false. The generous interpretation of the critics' argument is therefore they believe these outcomes cause more long-term harm than good - brutal logic for those alive today because of donor support. A debate about dependency theory led by the recipients of aid would be far more legitimate.

A more constructive debate on the UK's aid budget is necessary. It could deliver conclusions that speed us towards the day when non-humanitarian aid is no longer needed in the same quantities. On that goal, at least, both sides would surely agree.