THE BLOG
12/11/2013 12:54 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

If We Told the Truth About Aid, You Might Get Bored

Committee meetings are pretty boring.

Even just attending one is bad enough, but imagine trying to go out and raise millions of pounds to tackle some of the biggest problems in the world with a fundraising campaign asking people to give towards committee meetings.

You wouldn't raise much money.

Which is why we don't see development charities or the Government's Department for International Development marketing their work in this way, but if we were to take up the challenge that Ross Clark of The Times lays out in his eloquent description of the mismatch between the ways government aid money is explained and the ways it is spent, we might start to.

Because, in fact, some of the most effective ways to help people out of poverty don't sound very exciting - at first.

Like committee meetings.

Basudev Behere is in a local committee in his village in India; a country where there are more malnourished people than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. The committee is an emergency planning team and his role is to listen to the weather forecast on the radio.

He does it faithfully every day, and has done for years since Tearfund's local partners trained people in his village to form a committee to prepare for floods. And one day, a few weeks ago, he heard on the weather forecast that a big storm was coming.

He rounded up his neighbours, activated the evacuation drill and got everyone to safety before the storm came. That storm happened to be Cyclone Phailin which, despite being of the same scale as one in 1999 which killed 10,000 people, took the lives of only a few.

The lifesaving work of the committee was funded by British aid money; one of the many deeply unglamorous ways in which our 0.7% of GNI helps prevent loss of life and build local infrastructure to help countries like India sort themselves out so that eventually they won't need to receive aid any more.

It's work like this - nation-building, increasing people's resilience to natural disasters, adapting to climate change, mobilising people to learn how to look after their own communities - that gets to the root of the reasons why people are poor and starts to change things.

Our taxes fund these activities, unexciting though they appear, not least because they make sound financial sense. We carried out a cost-benefit analysis on work in Malawi which helped people adapt to climate change and prepare for disasters and found that for every £1 invested, the project activities delivered at least £24 of net benefits for the communities, helping them to eat healthily, increase soil fertility, and generate income to fund their children through school and save for contingencies. And mortality rates decreased too.

You don't see those on posters as often as you might see a crying child, or even a smiling one, but they're among the things which we know are the most successful in helping whole communities become resilient, because they're the ones where people take responsibility for their own future.

The fact of the matter is that we are not faced with a choice as bald as the one between emergency humanitarian assistance and long-term grassroots development. To suggest so is naive. Prevention is better than cure, which is the reason resilience projects are so effective, but sometimes we need the cure too.

And that's the spirit behind the 0.7% commitment, which came about following a World Council of Churches proposal in 1958 as a recognition that it is both the moral and practical thing to do in a world where our economies, financial systems and trade routes are interconnected and yet so wildly inequitable.

Ross Clark is right that we usually talk more about the help we give people after an emergency, like the devastating death toll in the Philippines this week, or about the children who need food and vaccinations. We talk about them because they are of course genuine needs which we must help to meet, but also because they are easy to understand and to feel compassion for.

And his challenge is a fair one, because those things will always be easier to understand if they're the only ones we see. If the flipside of challenge is opportunity, then ours is to talk more honestly about all the many and varying ways people can become less poor and to help taxpayers consider all the different projects our 0.7% funds.

Because of course, the aid debate shouldn't be restricted to an argument about ring-fencing. It must also be about how we help people find their own ways out of poverty, identifying the most effective ways to help people become resilient to increasingly extreme weather conditions and to find financial independence and celebrating them. Even when they're in the form of committee meetings.