Saturday, October 03, 2009

DfID Still Burning Our Money

Advocacy never comes cheap

As BOM readers will know, we do not believe the Department for International Development (DfID) has ever delivered good value for British taxpayers (see previous blogs gathered here).

This year DfID will spend just under £7bn, supposedly on international aid programmes. But large elements of that are not at all what the average taxpayer would understand as being "aid".

To start with, most taxpayers probably think of aid as being humanitarian relief - the kind of thing we see on TV when disaster strikes in a third world country. And - if only on the there but for the grace of God principle - most of us are very willing to see our taxes spent on such relief.

But humanitarian relief actually only accounts for about 10% of DfID's spending. The rest goes on a raft of other stuff, like economic development assistance.

Now the thing about tax-funded development assistance is that there is virtually zero evidence it actually works. Since the 1960s, when such programmes really got going, it is reckoned that Western taxpayers have spent around $1.8 trillion on them. Yet many of the recipient countries have made virtually no economic progress. Indeed, some have actually gone backwards (see previous blogs).

Much of the money was wasted on grandiose government projects which proved to be white elephants (the notorious groundnuts scheme is still a classic example). More disappeared into Swiss bank accounts, and down myriad other corrupt plugholes. And countless hundreds of billions was wasted on half-baked schemes dreamed up by aid bureaucrats as they jetted round the world visiting all those five star hotels.

And because most of the money is spent thousands of miles away from the prying eyes of the funding taxpayers, there is virtually no oversight. And virtually no come-back when each new brainwave finally flops, only to be replaced by the next one.

Yes, I know, sweeping generalisations. But the fact remains that the big success stories in economic development have never come about as the result of western government aid programmes. They have come from poor countries themselves deciding to embrace the market and welcome in private investment.

Not that any of this has been allowed to derail DfID's latest half-baked scheme - the so-called "rights" approach to development. This is the soppy idea that the key to economic development is not, say, drilling a well, or building a school, but educating the natives to demand their rights to clean water and education. Just like you might do as an anxious parent in the London Borough of Bromley.

And boy, does this idea allow DfID to waste money. Because by switching its emphasis from drilling wells to promoting rights, it moves out of the realm of practicalities and into the realm of "communications" and"advocacy" - aka spin. And spin can take place anywhere, including right back here in blighty.

According to Fake Aid, a new report from the International Policy Network:

"increasing amounts of DfID funds are channelled through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to fund lobbying activities, marketing, and the promotion of political ideology, often within the UK.

DfID funds various well-known NGOs – including Oxfam, VSO, and ActionAid – for vague-sounding activities such as “awareness”, “promotion”, and “advocacy”. The programme that funds these activities has spent over £600 million to date. Most of these grants are not provided by an open tendering system but are instead supplied to NGOs that have very close relationships with government. New applications are currently not allowed, so this elite band of NGOs has enjoyed sole access to the increasing funding."

Very cosy. And so far, the entire shebang has cost us around £1bn, with the total rising fast. Here's a chart of the various components of DfID's spin budget:

Some of the details highlighted by the report really are enough to make you spit:
  • The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has received DfID grants worth over £1.2 million since 2003. Funding covered lobbying activities, new staff for their European Union and International Relations Department, and an “international buffet and wine” event with live music to celebrate “International Women’s Day” in the UK. DfID also paid the TUC to hold lessons in how to apply for even more DfID funds.
  • Under one programme, DfID granted the maximum amount, £300,000, to the National Union of Teachers (NUT) to “enable them [teachers] to become global agents of change” through greater involvement with development issues. The project intends that teachers can then become involved in “central and local government department policy debates.”

Have you spat yet?

As we steady ourselves for the imminent bunfight in Manchester, Tyler will be seeking out a session on international aid. What he wants to know is why Mr Cam has promised there will be no cuts in the aid budget when so much of it is being incinerated on outrageous nonsense like this?

PS For more on the report see this excellent piece by Carl Mortished.

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