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We Need to Up Our Game on Aid

UK researchs impact on international development Photo cred DFID UK aid shelter kits are loaded for shipment in Dubai e1517912074980
Written by Nick Busvine

The merger between the Foreign office and DfID is a sensible move. Whether it will actually make any difference is another question…

The reintegration of DfID into the Foreign Office reminds one of that quote wrongly attributed to the Roman satirist Gaius Petronius Arbiter, but which in fact first appeared in a Harper’s magazine article in 1957:‘We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization…’

Until DfID’s creation in 1997, the Foreign Office had overall responsibility for the operation and direction of the then Overseas Development Administration. Is Boris Johnson’s decision to revert to the status quo ante a shrewd strategic move or merely a tactic to create the illusion of progress? Time will tell.

Having spent some 30 years in the Foreign Office, I am now a founding partner of a small business that spends a great deal of its time advising clients on the potential risks associated with entering into transactions or partnerships both in the developed and developing world. Inevitably, this means that we look on a daily basis at issues such as integrity, corruption and political exposure, as well as management team capability and security.

A professional lifetime dealing with developing and unstable parts of the world has taught me that the most important pre-conditions for poverty reduction are: peace; education; and good governance. The first two speak for themselves. Good governance covers a whole host of things, including: mechanisms that limit public and private sector corruption; the ability of ordinary voters to hold politicians to account; freedom of the press; and a functional legal system that guarantees business and property rights.

It should be obvious that aid programmes cannot be effective if they operate in isolation from the wider social and political context in recipient states. It is simply not possible to bundle up aid policy packages and expect them to have any sustainable impact on ordinary people’s lives if the wider pre-conditions are not met.

To be fair to DfID, they have always been deeply concerned about good governance – and have run countless programmes around the world to try to ensure that the aid seeds they sow do not fall on stony ground. Supporting NGOs has been, at least on the face of it, a useful way of circumventing corrupt officials. But trying to route round the problem doesn’t make it go away. The question is, how successful has the experiment to separate aid from the Foreign Office actually been?

The evidence on the ground suggests that while well-intentioned, the disaggregation of aid and foreign policy has made matters worse rather than better. Since the late 1990’s the Foreign Office has greatly reduced its presence in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa. DfID has largely been left to get on with it. This means that less diplomatic attention has been paid to conflict resolution and good governance than in the 1980s and 1990s. This will have undermined the potential impact of well-meaning DfID programmes.

DfID may well have a deep institutional understanding of the necessary preconditions for poverty alleviation measures to be effective, but its institutional culture has tended to get in the way. While giving to people who are less fortunate than you may be personally fulfilling, giving money away does not of itself generate wealth. The real danger, as all experienced members of the aid community know or ought to know, is that aid programmes can all too easily foster aid dependency and – worse – sometimes actually encourage corruption rather than mitigate it. Picture a patient on a trolley in intensive care. The idea is that an aid infusion will cure that patient, who will leap off the table restored and invigorated. All too often, what actually happens is more akin to the patient expiring on the spot when the infusion treatment is removed.

What is euphemistically described as ‘direct budgetary support’ straight to the exchequer of developing countries risks consolidating corrupt regimes. Dumping surplus grain on developing countries in anything other than an extreme emergency undermines local farmers. Donating used clothing inhibits domestic textile manufacture – and so on. The 2017 scandal that led to the resignation of leading executives of Adam Smith International also served as a warning that the well-intentioned but occasionally naïve staffers at DfID were prone to fall victim to corrupt practice closer to home – as ASI sought to rip them off.

Perhaps most fundamentally of all, I have often been left wondering whether – deep down – too many within DfID are actually subconsciously comfortable with aid dependency. The basic conundrum is that people join DfID to ‘do good’ rather than get involved in the cut and thrust of business and the pursuit of profit. The only long-term escape route from poverty in the developing (not to mention the developed) world is economic growth. With the required preconditions in place, that growth has to come from enterprise, investment and trade. If this raw commercial activity is distasteful to you as an aid official, it is going to be hard to make the genuine positive impact you hope for. Aid programmes then run the risk of amounting to little more than a series of token gestures that don’t do much more than make the donors feel good about themselves.

Reintegrating our aid and foreign policy machines ought to help with a more holistic approach to our aid policy. But I am not holding my breath. For example, as a Brexiteer, I would love to see the deeply protectionist measures associated with the EU Common Agricultural Policy thrown into the dustbin of history. Why on earth should we continue to support measures that guarantee payments to some of the wealthiest landowners in this country, while all too often denying African farmers the opportunity to sell to us on competitive terms?

Corruption, conflict and despair are on the rise in vast swathes of the developing world, a situation that Covid-19 will only make worse. It has been deeply depressing to observe the direction of travel in Mozambique (where I served in 1991-4) since the heady days of the successful peace process and first elections in the early 1990s, to a situation now where income inequality is increasing, corruption scandals have become state threatening; where electoral fraud has become entrenched, the peace process with Renamo yet again hangs in the balance and a bloody grievance-based Islamist insurgency has broken out in the gas-rich north of the country. Over the years, Mozambique has been one of the leading recipients of aid support from the international community. It is hard to see right now that it has had any positive impact at all.

Those chaps in the newly-created Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have a serious amount of work to do. They had better roll their sleeves up…

About the author

Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick is also a town councillor – and is currently the Mayor of Sevenoaks.