Thursday, July 20, 2006

Shoot the Whole Aid Down

You don't have to like Bob Geldof, and I can kind of see why the blunt language he used to criticize New Zealand's level of foreign aid (one of the very lowest in the OECD) would have raised some people's hackles slightly.

But I've been a little taken aback by the outpouring of boorish, hypersensitive responses from NZers, in forums such as the Kiwiblog comments section and the Stuff website feedback. They range from the straightforward "how dare he come here and criticise us" to the ill-informed cop out, "their corrupt leaders will take it all", to the openly racist "I'll give aid when they stop having ten kids".

And it's the Americans who are supposed to be arrogant, insular and unable to take criticism? God, I would hate to see what kind of superpower NZ would make.

It's the "aid will just be wasted and encourages corruption" line that is perhaps the most insidious. People use this as an excuse to absolve themselves completely of responsibility and not to have to think about the issues again.

It's true that a lot of aid has been squandered in the past. But how hard was anyone trying to make it effective and well-targeted? During the cold war, both blocs squandered a lot of foreign "aid" buying the support of corrupt elites, in the service of their respective geopolitical strategies.

But if you have the right motivations, getting good value for aid money is far from impossible.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' international aid unit, NZAid, works with proven, reputable partner organisations in selected countries, and directs funding towards specified projects that aim to support human development, especially in health and education, in these countries. The ones I have seen look well-designed, at least on paper.

The aid we do provide is actually quite transparent and well-targeted; generally, we aren't handing out pork in exchange for political influence. But we could do more; additional $ going in from New Zealand would probably make a genuine difference to people in the developing world.

In Peru, I talked extensively with a local NGO that ran a number of projects, some of them quite innovative, and very much driven by the "hand up not a hand out" philosophy. They were able to answer my "and how are you evaluating this project?" questions, rather better, I might say, than in some examples I could identify closer to home.

They are supported by Italian, US and Swedish organisations, but resources are of course limited. Again, I would be reasonably confident that more funding for them would not go amiss.

Some argue, like Helen Clark, that NZ helps in other, less quantifiable ways, such as by contributing to peacekeeping and having open trade policies. But there's no reason why we can't do those things AND increase our level of direct aid. Then we could more genuinely argue that we are an example to others.

On David Farrar's Kiwiblog (this post seems not to be presently available) , there were the usual responses from the"government shouldn't be spending my money for me" types (including Farrar himself), arguing that private citizens should be making personal donations, rather than the government spending our tax dollars.

That's fine; I would agree that in some circumstances individuals can make more effective, better targeted contributions. This is an area that interests me - so I would be genuinely pleased if those people could describe their experiences in contributing aid at an individual level, and their strategies for ensuring its effectiveness.


Kevin H said...

Is there any country that likes to be criticised by a visitor, especially in such a hostile manner? The consequent 'letters to the Editor' should have been expected.
I wonder if the well-meaning Bob may have had unfortunate timing with his visit, when the death of the Kahui twins was still so prominent. That shocking incident and all the aftermath had people feeling that there are so many problems in this country for us to face up to, then Bob comes along and lectures us, with some fairly ripe language, on how we should be doing more for overseas aid. Compounding our defensive, insular reaction was the murder of the teacher in the Tokoroa classroom. When people are left shocked and wondering if they and their families are safe anywhere in their communities, they are probably in no mood to be admonished by St Bob about our level of overseas aid.
Now I am no great fan or defender of this govt, but usually when someone suggests the govt spends more in a particular area I ask how much more tax would you like to pay to provide the funding for that extra spending? (Or how much health/education/justice would you like to forgo?). The fact is the govt has finite resources (although the tax take in recent years could lead you to believe otherwise!). I am glad that I don't have to make the tough decisions on govt spending.
The world needs passionate people like Geldof. He is right to raise awareness of the terrible poverty that exists in the world. But the fact is that he is a single-issue crusader. Democratic governments are obliged to take a broader view and have to make difficult decisions on many competing priorities.

ZenTiger said...

Wow. So my post suggested to you that aid will be wasted and encourage corruption? And that absolved me from giving two hoots?

That wasn't the point I was trying to make, but I'll go with the gist anyway.

I did say in my post I prefer the personal involvement approach.

So, for me, as a monthly direct debit donator to selected charities of my choice, I feel I get better bang for buck than some of the half arsed schemes, or dubious regimes, or donations for political reasons the government backs.

By taking a stronger personal interest, I feel it is harder to absolve oneself from thinking about charity. Thus, the government allocating .7% GDP to donations, to me, is little guarantee they'll spend it wisely, in places I think count more.

And I look at places like Zimbabwe and see that too many people sit back ignoring the big picture that creates the mess in the first place.

You want more responsibility, people have to take it and speak up. They also deserve to have a chance to make that choice. A 1% tax is just another way of dumbing us all down.

You say its true a lot of aid was squandered. Yes, it is.

Exactly why I think you are wrong when you decide my opinion is all about avoidance.

ZenTiger said...

Well, this is an interesting twist:

"New Zealand is ranked sixth out of the 21 richest nations -- beating Britain, the United States and France -- in a survey of countries helping to make the world a better, safer place to live."

Maybe we can help sort things out in ways that are not measured in pure hard dollars?

I don't know what the metrics were (article linked on my blog, maybe it says) but I'd be choosing things like:

1. Generous refugee and immigration acceptance program.
2. Goods and equipment, delivered, installed and people trained on them
3. Helping enforce law and order on the ground.
4. Food and supplies for those times when staying alive is the first priority.
5. A strong VSA organisation, ethos, awareness, (funding!) especially allowing young NZ'ers to travel and experience first hand what this is all about
6. Recycling programs - I mean things like old spectacles taken from Kiwis, fixed up and sent to people and matched to requirements, second hand books, useful equipment, breeding stock (sheep, goats)
7. Medical programs having some OE training and volunteer element
8. Targeted trade deals with nations needing a leg into a market
9. Sponsorship programs of specific people, business efforts, village resources.
10. Reporters reporting on the effect this has first hand. Direct feedback when some corrupt bastard gets away with appropriating donations etc.

Simon Bidwell said...

Zen Tiger:

thanks for the comments.

1st post: apologies if I implied your attitude was that we should give up. I was summarising the attitudes expressed by a lot of people in blog comments, letters to the editor, etc. Your post was one of the catchier examples of the “the leaders are all corrupt so aid will be wasted” line.

I guess what bugged me was that so many people are prepared to quote this as received wisdom, without bothering to consider actual examples.

Why do people assume that aid provided by the NZ government is not well monitored, or even that it is provided at a government-to-government level? It doesn't take long to check out the NZ Aid

and see the list of projects supported in various countries. In many cases they link with local NGOs with a proven track record and usually support projects with evidence of effectiveness.

One advantage of aid provided by a government with the right motivations is that they have the capacity to research the projects which provide the “biggest bang for the buck”, and then monitor them properly.

While I agree that individual efforts and donations can also be effective (especially if you know an area and are aware what the problems are), individuals are often limited to donating to large, international NGOs which have a profile in New Zealand. These are often as bureaucractic as any government, usually limited to certain kinds of activity, and may also have conflicts of interest. The inidividual doesn't necessarily have the time or resource to verify what has been achieved with their donation.

Several people have mentioned Zimbabawe and Mugabe. As far as I'm aware, we don't provide aid to Zimbabwe, and certainly not to Mugabe's government. Most NZ aid is directed at Asia and the Pacific.

2nd post: Yes, it doesn't surprise me that, measured across a range of areas, NZ does more than most. One of the reasons would be that (as above) our aid, as provided at government level, really is aid, rather than some kind of disguised export subsidy which has bugger-all to do with what developing countries actually need.

Looking at your list of programme attributes, many of them fit with what we do already, or have in the past. With regard to No. 6 (breeding stock), you may be interested in this anecdote about a NZ contribution to Peru in the early 80s (I think it was an arm of MAF that did this kind of thing). Another bit in that post may also appeal to your interest in property rights.

[You probably wouldn't be impressed that, taken as a whole, your list looks rather like the Cuban aid & development strategy :)]

Anyway, despite agreeing that these are all good things, the level of monetary contribution is measurable in a striaghtforward way, and something we have signed up to. We should therefore be committed to eventually meeting that target, *especially if* - as I would argue - our current contriutions are relatively transparent and effective. After all, if we can be sixth best, why not best?

ZenTiger said...

Thanks for the details. You've inspired me to look into the NZ Aid Website. Live and Learn.

I'm actually impressed the Cuban Aid and Development Strategy have as much common sense as me. I don't have a problem sharing the ideas. How did it work for them? Did they try it on Cuba?

I think the Mugabe reference is more about letting corrupt rulers get away with too much. The "donations" to Hamas rankle more people.

I am predicting that Mugabe will extact financial assistance from the UN before the next 12 months play out. And that would piss me off.

As for the meeting of our aid target, I personally don't have a problem with that (although I still prefer to see charities driving this rather than government per se.) and engaging in NZ businesses to help deliver Aid is still a preferred way to go for me.

We could quit Kyoto and celebrate with a big donation?

ZenTiger said...

Bull Semen! Our Kyoto bill skyrockets even more.