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Global Development Institute

How aid can be done better

14 February 2018

A researcher from The University of Manchester has written a provocative book which looks at the truth behind aid and the reality of ‘taking sides’ in aid.

 

 

In Why We Lie About Aid: Development and the Messy Politics of Change, Pablo Yanguas from the University’s Global Development Institute demonstrates that polarised politics in donor countries has made the aid system highly dysfunctional, mistaking short-term results for long-term transformation. This results in attacks on aid from across the political spectrum, with the right claiming too much is spent on aid, and the left claiming it’s not enough.

He contends the reality is that, at its most effective, aid is about struggle, taking sides, and politics. Yanguas argues that aid effectiveness requires donors to stop talking about levels of spending or vague notions of ‘accountability’ and ‘ownership’, and begin talking instead about empowering aid recipients and promoting meaningful long-term change.

Drawing on stories from a variety of countries - from Britain to the US, Liberia to Honduras - Yanguas demonstrates that the effectiveness of aid is influenced by a wide range of factors, like the influence of domestic partisan politics, the blind pursuit of a ‘standard’ for foreign aid, or self-interested behaviour by politicians in recipient countries.

Yanguas cites the challenges he saw in Sierra Leone in 2010, where the UK’s aid agency tasked staff to focus on value-for-money despite formally recognising that this would be a challenge in that country. This meant funds were spent on issues which fit the agency’s business model, rather than what was critically needed, arguably undermining the kinds of institutional transformations that would have made the country more resilient to the widespread public health crisis that came with Ebola four years later. At the same time, due to the need to focus reporting on measurable results, many stories of UK aid helping embattled Sierra Leoneans to make transformational change were never captured, undermining the public’s perception of how development actually happens on the ground, and what a catalytic effect aid can have.     

David Booth, Principal Research Fellow of the Overseas Development Institute, has called Why We Lie About Aid ‘one of the most exciting books about development aid in many years’, saying it is ‘original and timely, closely argued and evidenced, and beautifully written.’

‘Foreign aid is not a good investment: risks are generally high, dividends far too uncertain,’ says Yanguas. ‘Aid has been forced to chase quick wins, instead of supporting the establishment of the kinds of sustainable institutions that underlie effective governments, free societies, and fair markets. No wonder many people in donor countries such as Britain that development assistance is a waste of money. At the same time, aid is exactly the right kind of investment - one that citizens of developed countries should be proud to make.’

‘There is a potential for aid to be enormously valuable, despite the myriad ways in which our politicians and our own misperceptions shackle it to ineffective models and practices. This value is evident in the countless development struggles that it supports around the world, the stories of personal sacrifice in search of a greater public good.’

Why we Lie About Aid is published by Zed books at £16.99 and is available from 15 February 2018

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