Is the future of foreign aid in Europe the broken U.S. system?

Aid advocates should be careful what they wish for. If you advocate for an input target like 0.7%, you don’t have have a leg to stand on when the government hits the target but uses the money for whatever it can get away with within the rules.

That is Owen Barder analyzing the U.K.’s new development and aid strategy. It is a very good and very important piece, largely about how the U.K. is moving in a U.S.-like direction, with more focus on national self interest, international security, and outsourcing.

What worries me about this direction:

  • “This looks really effective at helping people. Let’s copy this,” said no one ever after looking at the U.S. system of outsourcing development project to private contractors.
  • There are good reasons why right-leaning governments want to use their aid policy to serve the national interest. But I think they ignore an important cost: people don’t like you if you give them presents that are really for you. It is so transparent. You become known as a jerk. You lose respect and standing in the long run. That standing, as it turns out, is actually pretty useful when you want to police the world or play the liberator. In my mind, the pursuit of national interest in the short term undermines national interest in the long term.
  • Every time I hear a very sensible-sounding goal to reduce poverty or violence from a European officlal, I can’t help thinking that it’s cover for: “how do we keep more poor brown people form arriving on our borders?” It is AMAZING how much this refugee issue colors every aid and research project associated with a UK or European agency today.
  • The UK is one of the most important and influential donors and, in my experience, their development agency DFID has been the most sensible and effective. While the political winds may blow DFID in a bad direction, I am optimistic the staff will steer it back over time.

Anyways, Barder is one of the best people to tell you about the UK system, and I am not, so do read his post.

45 thoughts on “Is the future of foreign aid in Europe the broken U.S. system?

  1. It has been argued that migration is one of the most effective forms of development in this blog. While this might work for individuals and to a certain extent for their home countries (via remittances), it is not conducive to the long term development of entire economies.

    Europeans are worried about immigration. This might well be an overreaction as they overestimate the size of it, but nonetheless it is a concern. Aid policy explicitly targets this by trying to invest in ways that will actually improve the living conditions of populations to the extent that they do not wish to migrate anymore but rather become engaged in catalysing change in their own countries.

    So really the bottom line is about the projects having a significant impact on people’s lives. We should talk about how economic and social development should discourage emigration in developing countries. Unless our plan for the future is that everyone eventually moves to Europe and North America. Which, to be honest, is not that great of a plan.

  2. Agree with all but the very last point. Surely the eternally-rotating staff of these institutions have a very limited ability to prevail upon the political “winds” of powerful people with strong agendas?

  3. Can we talk a bit more about this: “This looks really effective at helping people. Let’s copy this,” said no one ever after looking at the U.S. system of outsourcing development project to private contractors”?

    I am well aware of many flaws in the US’s approach to development. But, as someone who has worked for both NGOs and contractors, the anti-contractor bias hasn’t seemed very fair or very true, in general (Afghanistan and Iraq seem like large and important exceptions). All of these organizations are chasing money and both seem to have success and failure.

    I’d be interested to hear a more nuanced discussion of the roles of NGOs, UN agencies, contractors and local governments. What is it that DFID is doing that is better in terms of partner selection?

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