John Hillary, Executive Director of War on Want, has written an article for – amaze me some more – the Guardian. Here it is: A myopic Tory approach to fighting global poverty
Mr Hillary, I am sure, sincerely wants to fight global poverty. The trouble is that he and his colleagues in the development “community” have become a mini-class in their own right, complete with a class interest. I am forever saying that people often have an incredibly sensitive “nose” for their own class interest that operates a little below the conscious level. In this, Marx had a point. Classes always convince themselves that whatever benefits them as a class is also to the benefit of the world.
What benefits the aid community is that aid is seen to be very complex and difficult, so you need a special class of people to mediate giving aid.
“Ultimately, a country’s development path is determined by historical forces and political choices at a far higher level than aid, and it is these more complex factors that risk being overlooked in a narrow focus on measurable, short-term outputs. “
I do in fact agree with this statement – although my view of which political choices have which results might differ from that of Mr Hilary. I also agree that it really is complex and difficult to work out how best to use the government’s aid budget, assuming that one has decided that there is benefit in doing this at all. But the intense practical complexity of (making up an example) arranging for perishable medicines to reach a flood-stricken area before they go off, a process that might involve both technical and human factors, is not the sort of complexity that John Hillary means here.
That sort of complexity in a problem can be solved by clever people making clever plans or by average people making individually minor but cumulatively clever adjustments and innovations. The success of the plans or adjustments then shows up in measurable outputs – if not in the very short term, at least in the medium term. That does not serve the class interest of the aid community. It needs aid to be philosophically complex, basically so that their class will always be needed.
Hence one could predict that the aid community will favour un-measurable and long term (“long” tending to “infinite”) solutions. It is also likely to favour indirect solutions. Every stage of indirectness is an evolutionary niche for someone in his sub-class to find sustenance. Sure enough, in the Guardian article Mr Hillary is indignant about the government scrapping the DfID’s global development engagement fund, “a scheme designed to increase public understanding of the causes of global poverty and to mobilise action in support of international development.” He imprudently included a further link that said that the cancelled projects included:
£146,000 for a Brazilian-style dance troupe in Hackney, London; £55,000 to run stalls at summer music festivals; £120,000 to train nursery school teachers about ‘global issues’; £130,000 for a ‘global gardens schools network’ and £140,000 to train outdoor education tutors in Britain on development.
We laugh. But we should no more blame Mr Hillary for thinking that the Hackney dancers or the global gardens schools network have some use in ending poverty than we should blame a General Motors executive for saying, and sincerely believing, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”