Sunday 8 December 2019

Time we challenged aid industry

Why should we foot the bill for Africa's political corruption and soaring birth rates asks Eamon Delaney

I thought I was seeing things when I caught the headline 'Africa set to follow in Ireland's footsteps says Bob Geldof.' Well, has Bob not heard the news?

Zombie hotels, colossal debt and a class of senior officials and politicians milking the system: why, yes, it sounds like Ireland alright.

Of course, Geldof meant something different. He said that Africa is ''kicking off'' and the continent ''would jump the gap from being a rural economy to an industrial economy just as Ireland had.'' It is developing "beyond any model a developmentalist can come up with", according to the rock star turned aid activist, and ''people are getting online and contributing to some of fastest growing mobile markets''.

This may be true, but is this not also the continent which is racked with corruption, war and famine, not to mention rampant overpopulation, and one which we, in the West, are expected to pay for through the pleadings of the likes of Geldof.

Because these reckless population increases -- in famine-beset Ethiopia, the population grows by a whopping one million people a year -- are a direct and dubious consequence of the ''kicked off'' growth, to which Geldof refers. For every kid with a mobile phone, there is another hungry one, brought into the world with seemingly little thought about its provision or support. Except, perhaps, to rely on international aid agencies.

But here's the thing. If Ireland is broke, as it clearly is, why should we have to continue to fund this rather dubious form of ''success'', married as it is to a continuing absence of proper governance and a marked reluctance to curb population growth, and hunger, despite the overwhelming pressure such ''growth'' is having on whatever little infrastructure these countries already have.

For example, there is an ad currently appearing in Irish newspapers urging us to donate to blindness projects in Nigeria. Fair enough, and all very laudable. But Nigeria is a potential superpower with oil and a booming, if chaotic and corrupt, economy. So should we not question why, and how, we fund their health programmes? It is the same with similar programmes in India and China, both also on their way to serious superpower status, especially China, which some observers believe will overcome the US in economic power.

To question these things, however, is to ask questions that the aid industry, both public and private, doesn't want to hear and any such debate is usually quickly shut down. Recently, for example, there was a call for international support for Pakistan after the devastating floods there. But others questioned why we were sending our hard won money to a Government which has nuclear weapons and a massive military budget. Reacting to specific disasters, as opposed to a long term open-ended support for questionable regions, is of course more worthy and straightforward, but even some of these programmes are being questioned as people, beset by recession, start to question the validity and value of their aid. It is interesting, for example, that support in the wake of the recent Pakistan floods was somewhat underwhelming, including aid from fellow Muslim countries.

In the UK, facing similar cuts as ourselves, there has been some serious questioning as to the value and purpose of the country's continuing aid programme and a sense of realism about whether it can fulfil the hugely ambitious goals set at the UN millennium summit, which set out to ''eradicate global poverty'', as if such a thing could ever be realistically done. By such criteria, poverty will always be relative.

Britain has contributed more than £2bn to the International Development Association, connected to the UN millennium programme, but the UK's new development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has promised to review their whole contribution, and its efficacy.

We should do the same. Our overseas development aid (ODA) has been made one of the more contentious areas in the discussion about Government cutbacks, but there is no reason why it should be immune to serious review, especially since our millennium promises were pitched very high, and made at a time of generous economic boom.

Despite existing cuts, Ireland still ranks as the sixth largest donor in the world in per capita terms and was praised by the OECD as a "champion" at making aid more effective. For example, according to Irish Aid, we have supported "13 million Ethiopians at risk of hunger, and supplied fertilisers and seeds to more than 1.5 million families in Malawi to allow them to escape from hunger and poverty".

But economists are in no doubt now that our overseas aid budget has to be looked at. According to Alan McQuaid, chief economist with Bloxham Stockbrokers, we simply cannot afford to fulfil the ODA targets while vital domestic services struggle to access funds. Contrary to the claims of the aid lobby, McQuaid correctly argues that ODA is not top of people's priority list -- health and education are -- and we need to spend what little we have on those areas people consider important.'

The McCarthy report recommended that our ODA target be put back three years to 2015, stating that it was an ambitious target made at a time when we didn't envisage the sort of economic crisis we presently face.

Aid spending in 2009 reached a high of €920m and this has now been reduced by about a quarter. According to Peter Power, the Minister of State responsible, the decision to cut ODA was ' 'difficult and painful'', but he rightly argued it had to be done to help restore the State's public finances: "We have a responsibility as a Government to make sure our finances are sustainable, without which we couldn't continue with overseas aid in the future."

The threat of reductions has drawn a predictable response, with some people saying we are abandoning help to ''the poorest of the poor". But the fact is that we aren't. We are doing the best we can at a time when our financial sovereignty is being threatened. What is more interesting, however, is how little overall debate continues about the efficacy and methodology of all this aid. In the case of Africa, there is still ongoing corruption, waste and multiple wars, and far from healing these unfortunate features, as we know, foreign aid could actually be fuelling them.

But the bigger issue is the effect of such aid given the huge population increases in these African areas. Can we be surprised, for example, that Ethiopia is suffering from famine when its population is expected to go from its present 78 million to an amazing 170 million by 2050, or even sooner.

This is an astounding rise, given the apparently miserable condition of the country -- although there is no doubt that others are wielding mobile phones, as Geldof so triumphantly puts it. And it is the same with other African countries, notably the Congo, which is undergoing a similar massive increase in population.

But few in the aid industry want to really address this: not Bono, or Geldof. Instead, we get the same unchanging line about ''curing'' world poverty, and the need for us to continue aiding Africa, and somehow help it to develop up to first world standards -- when we are possibly doing the opposite. And all of this is not even to mention what such ''growth'' is doing to the global environment.

For example, when Kevin Myers in the Irish Independent made this point some time ago, he was rounded on by the ''politically correct'' lobby and even cited for ''racism''. Aid lobbyists took him to task over his language but seemed to ignore his central point: the reckless population increases.

But then perhaps to address this awkward fact would be question the whole methodology of these extensive aid agencies. To his credit, John O'Shea of GOAL is one of the few to question the unsustainable population increases, just as he has been vocal in tackling corruption in Africa and elsewhere.

But what we get elsewhere is a dogmatic and emotional approach which suggests that by cutting aid we are directly ''endangering the lives of those in the developing world'', as if such a crude arithmetic could ever be applied. No matter how much aid we give, there will always be poor and hungry people, and yes, people dying. Especially in places were millions continue to be brought into a world of hunger and disease, with apparently little thought about their future, except that the West will probably have to foot the bill.

We have already given very generously aboard, but we are broke now, and simply can't afford to give at the same levels, and especially not to places where the governments already have more than enough money, if only they could be persuaded to spend it properly. Maybe that should be the next mission for Bob.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss