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The endless complexity of international aid

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.”

10 comments to The endless complexity of international aid

  • Alsadius

    The difference is, GM execs don’t do it with my money.

    Wait a second…

  • Verity

    I appreciate Natalie’s thinking.

    But the “global poverty” agenda is based on the notion that anyone other than those seeking control of funds and political agendas gives a crap. Even with the emotive tag “global poverty”, would you tick a box that read, “so raise my taxes”?

    Global poverty is nature’s way of telling us that there are too many people who can’t take care of themselves … despite Niagaras of aid and free Western technology, which they couldn’t have invented themselves in 20,000 years.

    “Global poverty” is a lash to drum up funds for people administering programmes to alleviate global poverrty. That’s it.

  • Rich Rostrom

    What Charlie Wilson actually said was

    “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”

    It is depressing to see a free-market libertarian repeating a leftists’ slander of capitalism.

  • John Dacre

    She was not writing about Charles Erwin Wilson and what he actually meant with that remark, she was using a widely known meme that is out there whether you like it or not to make a very different point about a very different issue.

  • Rich Rostrom,

    John Dacre is correct as to the point I was trying to make.

    FWIW I was aware that the situation arose in a confirmation hearing and that a senior person in GM – I would not have known his name without checking – had said this while answering that, yes, he would make a decision that harmed GM if need be, but he could scarcely conceive of such a situation arising because “for years I believed… etc.” In other words he wasn’t exactly repudiating the whole idea either. He was saying that he now held the view that interests of America and GM were closely aligned but not identical, whereas previously he had thought they were identical.

    But I didn’t go into that because I just wanted to make the general point (as Mr Dacre said): it’s usual for people to assume that their class interest and the wider interest are the same without ever giving it any thought at all.

  • Just to be clear, this is the Charlie Wilson who was Eisenhower’s first Secretary of Defense ?

    Getting back to the issue of the “aid community’ I think they have lost a lot of their reason for existence. Countries that once were poor, such as South Korea etc don’t want or need them, countries that are climbing out of poverty are finding that they are either more trouble than they are worth or are actively subverting their development efforts by pushing unrealistic environmental restriction onto them or trying to cut them off from using certain technologies such as GM crops that could help them effectively fight hunger.

    Worst of all they are acting as paymasters and as quartermasters in some of the nastiest wars now happening on our planet. Somalia is a prime example. They hire factions to guard them and these factions make sure that their own troops get fed first and get first crack at any other supplies,including gas.

    It is hard to imagine that these wars would have lasted so long or been as vicious if the humanitarians had not been there to keep them supplied.

  • Yes, it is the Charles Wilson who was Eisenhower’s first secretary of defence.

    On the substantive point, the aid community may sometimes appear insidious and ill-directed, but we shouldn’t turn against international aid altogether or declare that they have “lost a lot of their reason for existence”. Their primary reason for existence is the western world’s desire to ameliorate the suffering of others elsewhere in the world, on which there is a relatively stable political consensus.

    A lot of the community’s problems come, I think , from something like what Ms Solent has identified – as I would term it, the aid community’s mission creep. Whenever I hear someone talking about “ending world poverty”, I roll my eyes; such an ambition is so far removed from reality that it quickly infects the means this person deploys and damages their ability to achieve the more modest goals they should rightly be aiming for, which is amelioration.

    The more transformative goals of the aid community quickly get them into trouble because they run up against political and social problems with which they cannot contend, hence leading them to widen their purview and adopt a more totalizing concept of what they need to accomplish their mission – and because what they need to tackle the underlying problems of global poverty is nothing less than dramatic political change across much of the world’s surface, we find they are suddenly interested in efforts such as the drive for wider mobilization identified in this post.

    All of which is sad, because the aid community does the most good when it is down to earth and focused on measurable outputs.

  • pete

    I know a few people who work for charities. They all seem to be doing very well indeed, with good wages and working conditions. Strangely, they all seem to be from quite well-off families. There seems to be some old boys/girls network when getting lucrative charity work.

  • RRS

    And – not a word about the work of Sir Peter Bauer.

  • Paul Marks

    Lord Peter Bauer “Dissent on Delopment” – all people need to know on this matter.

    As for “ring fencing” the “aid budget” (or whatever the government has done) – pass the sick bag Alice.