Friday, 6 March 2009

Does aid work?

Does development assistance work? Of course it does. It works excellently for the 50000+ western aid employees who's paychecks depend on it. It works well for an equal number of politicians and government officials in developing countries who can line their pockets with it. It works for a much larger number of NGO employees who get most of their funding from western state budgets. It works fine for the producers of Toyota Land Cruisers, for satellite phone makers, American corn farmers, producers of solar panels, air freighters, consultancy firms, the academia, conference speakers and hotel owners. In short, it keeps the big aid industry running.

But what about Africa's poor? Does it work for them too? Occasionally. There is food for the hungry and vaccines for the children. But growth and prosperity promised by Western aid projects since the 1950ies are difficult to spot. The snows of Kilimanjaro are thawing but the number of poor does not fall.

Which is a good thing if you take a cynical view. Obviously aid cannot exist for long without the "bottom billion" as its customer base. Eradicating poverty is aid's #1 "production target". Achieving it however would mean undermining the livelihoods of an army of aid workers. They would need to find something else, probably less personally rewarding, to do. Luckily therefore, the industry's foremost sign of success being its own extinction, it has hitherto failed excellently.
The aid industry may also be a bit like a religion or church, with deities, rituals and clergy. There could even be something for the Winter God in it.
Apart from other things, a dollar a day may help clean an expatriate's swimmingpool.

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