speri.comment: the political economy blog

More aid for Africa?

The relationship between aid and development is unclear, but using aid to build solidarity with organisations in the ‘Global South’ is something we should embrace

Graham Harrison, Associate Fellow of SPERI and Professor of Politics, University of Sheffield

Graham Harrison

The target of 0.7% of GNP dedicated to aid was established in 1970 during a period when the post-colonial world was energised by developmental nationalism. Since that year, the ‘point-seven’ figure has become something of a talisman for developmental optimism.

There is a widely-held belief that more aid means more development and that development reduces poverty. It is this common sense that drives the ‘polite adversarialism’ that characterises relations between the major development agencies and the Coalition government in the UK. Throughout the economic crisis the agencies have worked hard to make a case for aid, fearing that, when people and the government feel the pinch of austerity, the aid budget will be easy to cut back.

Yet, looking at research on aid and its relationship to development, one is struck by the lack of consensus. There is not only disagreement about results but also about what to measure and what matters.

Does aid promote economic growth? If so, does this mean reduced poverty? Does aid promote development by improving policy? Is aid best allocated to poverty-reducing projects? How can one control for national institutional and cultural environments? How does aid affect macroeconomic indices, such as exchange rates or price indices? Underlying everything there is perhaps the key question: how can the causal connection between aid and the response of the recipient country be portrayed?

In fact, the relationship between aid and life-saving or life-enhancing outcomes, expressed as headline statistics, is as much a statement of faith as it is of causality. This is not to argue that ‘aid is bad’ or deny that it has positive effects on some people’s lives. But, if one thinks about aid as a ‘chain’, it is evident that cause and effect are never straightforward.

There is a second cautionary point: poverty reduction is too great a social project to be encompassed within discussions of ‘point-seven’.

Poverty reduction in African countries would involve substantive social change of the kind that historians describe as epochal or even revolutionary. Interestingly, the main engine of global poverty reduction – China – is often described in such terms, but not with reference to aid. There is certainly no analogous epochal narrative for Africa, merely faith-statements about ‘point-seven’, statistical inferences and vignettes of small-scale welfare improvement.

Although China still contains millions of extremely poor people, it is the case that their numbers have been reduced massively. What makes China important is its instantiation of the historic truism that poverty reduction is the outcome of a capitalist transition which generates sustained economic growth. It is about developing production in ways that enhance technological inputs, about dynamic comparative advantage, about strategically adroit protection and about equally strategic liberalisation.

Equally importantly, it is about the extent to which social movements emerge to ensure that capitalist growth is ‘socially democratic’ – that is, redistributive and based in some (nationalist) norm of the common good. Questions about poverty in this context change from ones related to the amount and quality of aid to the ability of capitalism to generate growth and to the capacity of popular organisations to socialise the benefits of capitalist production.

Given the complexity of relationships between aid and poverty reduction, and the resulting likelihood that even achieving the ‘point-seven’ target will not itself make much difference to mass chronic poverty, an obvious question emerges: why does ‘point-seven’ and campaigning for more (and better) aid remain a lodestone for the major campaign organisations?

The strong association between aid and generosity is one explanation. Historically, aid is the grandchild of the Victorian grandparents: charity and mission. Now expressed through a mixture of humanitarianism, self-esteem and self-interest, aid has become a marker of national virtue: both in government and in the public sphere.

In other words, governments derive a ‘halo effect’ from committing to an ongoing, albeit unfulfilled, numerical target: this is the key significance of ‘point-seven’.

For major campaign organisations, the evocation of a generous British public is also the mainstay of campaigning and fundraising, with aid represented by them as the main, or indeed the only, way that people can express their concern for poor, distant others.

It is striking that public discussion of the expectations from aid is almost entirely absent. Aid stands almost as an article of faith in the British polity: with cause (aid) and effect (poverty reduction) apparently connected by an unknown process, just as with a mystical belief.

But the point is that this cognitive ‘gap’ doesn’t matter. This is because discussions of aid are predominantly about the moral standing and political agenda of the government, the campaigning energies of the NGOs and the laudable desire of ordinary people to feel generous or connected to those who seem to suffer terribly but also appear remote and unconnected – except when tied in through the aid relationship.

Hitting the (moderate) ‘point-seven’ target is not therefore the issue: the modalities, complexities and scope of ambition of aid matter a great deal more.

For some, aid is not charity; it is justice. It is seen as a kind of reparation for the fact that so much of the international political economy has been authored by powerful states to serve their interests to the detriment of the poorest, most vulnerable states. From this perspective, aid should be increased to promote ambitious social transformation and accompanied by reforms in global institutions.

Development NGOs are undoubtedly becoming more articulate over issues that contain more ‘politics’ than aid. This shift was announced most visibly through the Jubilee Debt Campaign’s connection of debt with structural adjustment, odious terms and unfair trade.

Building solidarity offers more transformative possibilities for those involved in campaign organisations, precisely because it opens up questions about how organisations in the ‘Global North’ might contribute to the struggles of those in the ‘Global South’.

In sum, if the big development question is how to make capitalism promote growth that then drives broader social improvements, the big campaign question becomes: how might we think of aid as a means to foster social improvement through building support for organisations that share values of social justice?

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