Bongo Wrongo

The media may have been caught up in Bloom’s absurd phrase, but we shouldn’t overlook that the debate on aid is still raging

“Bongo-Bongo land” conjures images of European Imperialism: the barbarity of Africans compared to the civilised white man – an entirely outdated and ridiculous image. But despite his atrocious phrasing, MEP Godfrey Bloom raises an important issue that shouldn’t be ignored.

On the face of it, it seems right that richer countries should give some of their money to developing nations. But this year the budget for the Department for International Development (DFID) has risen – while the rest of government is making cuts. The rising budget of the DFID is essentially a Robin Hood tax and the public seem to agree: the latest YouGov Survey on the issue revealed that 61% think the UK’s aid budget, the second highest in the world, needs reducing or cutting entirely.

With for most things it makes sense for Whitehall to spend on your behalf, for example infrastructure projects and policing, but it doesn’t make sense for government to donate aid money to other nations on our behalf. This money has no discernible benefits to taxpayers. This is not to say that we should not give aid: giving to charity helps provide vital relief in the developing world. However, if the public purse belongs to the taxpayer and is merely under stewardship of the treasury, then the recipients and amount of financial aid should surely be decided by the public themselves.

But if developing countries are getting life-saving aid then surely the end justifies the means? Didn’t Robin Hood get it right? Last year the National Audit office revealed they have almost no knowledge of how much aid actually reaches people in need. It also admitted that as the budget increased to reach 0.7% of GNI, it would be targeted at countries with less stable and more corrupt regimes. Therefore, Bloom’s comments that money from the DFID is spent on Ray-Ban sunglasses and Pakistani fighter jets may not be wide of the mark.

For example, in the latest corruption perception index, Pakistan was ranked 139th out of a total of 174. The country has just announced a 10% increase in defence spending which a Pakistani newspaper estimates to be around £360 million. This year the UK government will give £450 million to the country. South Africa’s president Zuma, whose country scored a more impressive 69, has been accused of making improvements to his rural property, including adding a helipad, at a cost to his country of £15 million. Direct aid to South Africa currently stands at £19 million from the UK taxpayer.

Anecdotal evidence does not equate to evidence of systematic corruption, but the shocking truth is that it is the only evidence we have. Once aid leaves Whitehall, the government simply doesn’t know where the money is going. South African aid which is set to end this year, will simply be re-allocated to countries that are more unstable and corrupt because Cameron has ring-fenced the aid budget.

In a liberal democracy, especially at a time of national austerity, people should have the right to decide where their money goes. If foreign aid was cut in line with policing and healthcare, then there would be nothing to stop you from donating to responsible NGOs. But if you want to make other people donate in the form of taxes, and spend their money in any way you choose, then the traditional word for this type of activity is theft. Robin Hood might have donated his proceeds to a good cause, but it doesn’t hide the fact that he was a criminal.

12 comments

  1. I think there is a genuine question of whether DFID’s spending should go up, or whether it should go down so that taxes could be cut (or the money invested elsewhere). Arguably, if this money was reinvested to stimulate growth then the *absolute* amount of going overseas might increase, even if the *proportion* decreased (i.e a smaller slice of a bigger pie).

    That said, aid bashing is pretty tiresome. No, it doesn’t always get spent in the best manner possible, but overall it has made some incredible contributions, particularly in the area of global health.

    I’ve previously written a blog on this, so if you want details and references, see here:
    http://experimentsofliving.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/examples-of-effective-aid/

    But briefly, aid has helped to:
    1)Eradicate small-pox
    2)Nearly eradicate polio
    3)Nearly eradicate Guinea-Worm disease
    4)Nearly eradicate River Blindness (onchocerciasis) in west Africa
    5)Cause a big decline in deaths and suffering from malaria
    6)Signficantly cut deaths from measles
    7)Vaccinate hundreds of millions against a type of pneumonia
    8)Vaccinate millions against hepatitis B
    9)Provide loads of other vaccines (pertussis, rotavirus, yellow fever etc)
    10)Reduce the burden of schistosomiasis and other tropical parasitic worms

    In terms of corruption, bear in mind that much aid is provided via NGOs rather than going directly to governments.

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  2. Do you really think funds can be relocated in such a way that growth will be so great that the “absolute” value of aid goes up? Whilst your logic may work in the long long term its not true in the short term. That aside I don’t believe the UK government, or any country for that matter, should have its government donating aid money on the publics behalf. That’s what charity is for, and it is optional.

    I think too many people are caught up in this idea the west owes the rest of the world something and we should send our money there. The real reason for aid is geopolitics and influence in the world.

    Other than natural disasters I don’t think the west should help at all, all countries should be left to develop by themselves, we had to. The only thing we should offer these countries is trade. Whilst these medical breakthroughs sound all nice and fancy at first, they simply serve to amplify the problem of population growth in these countries.

    http://www.paulchefurka.ca/Africa/Population%20and%20Per%20Capita%20GDP.png

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  3. “Do you really think funds can be relocated in such a way that growth will be so great that the “absolute” value of aid goes up? Whilst your logic may work in the long long term its not true in the short term.”

    Whether it would work would depend on the size of the investment, and where it was made. Without discussing specific examples, there is no justification for saying it would “not be true in the short term”. But to be honest I’d prefer we kept giving aid, as suddenly removing it would cause all sorts of problems with ongoing projects and condemn millions to avoidable suffering.

    I’d certainly prefer if people gave through charity. However, given there is such widespread ignorance of the facts, I’m quite happy to support the government in providing aid. The aid budget is somewhere around £10bn, whereas we spend around £40bn each year on alcohol alone. We can easily afford to help.

    “Other than natural disasters I don’t think the west should help at all”

    Why make an exception for natural disasters?

    “all countries should be left to develop by themselves, we had to.”

    ‘We’, as in you and me, didn’t have to. We had the fortune of being born and growing up in one of the richer nations on earth.

    “Whilst these medical breakthroughs sound all nice and fancy at first, they simply serve to amplify the problem of population growth in these countries. ”

    I’m glad you brought up overpopulation. It’s something I’m also concerned about. But ironically, one of the best ways to reduce fertility is to reduce childhood mortality.

    Here’s Hans Rosling explaining the *correlation* between fertility rates and childhood mortality at the level of whole countries:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwII-dwh-bk&

    And this World Bank article states that “improved child survival is perhaps the most powerful stimulant of fertility decline”. It goes on to discuss some of the *causative* links between the two:
    http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPRH/Resources/376374-1278599377733/Determinant62810PRINT.pdf

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  4. “Whether it would work would depend on the size of the investment, and where it was made.”

    You were talking about relocating aid money into the economy to create growth in gdp so that the lower % relative amount equated to larger absolute amount. Lets assume the uk economy gdp is 2,000 billion, and we donate 10 billion, which is 0.5% of gdp. if you invested 5 billion instead into some project, only donating 0.25% of gdp, to get back to your 10 billion absolute figure surely the economy have to double. I don’t quite follow your argument.

    “The aid budget is somewhere around £10bn, whereas we spend around £40bn each year on alcohol alone. We can easily afford to help.”

    Although this may be statistically correct, what it is effectively saying is the government knows best when it comes to how we should spend our money. Its kind of the ideological problem of the socialist nanny state where collectivity is more important than the individuals right to choose.

    “‘We’, as in you and me, didn’t have to. We had the fortune of being born and growing up in one of the richer nations on earth.”

    I mean the nation had to develop, the amount of money pumped into these countries over the years, it highly surprising they are not even at the standard europe was hundreds of years ago, people seriously need to question what this money has been spent on. http://krusekronicle.typepad.com/kruse_kronicle/images/2008/03/05/worldgdpregion_3.gif We don’t want to create a continent of dependancy in the case of Africa, especially when it outpopulates the western world now. The bill seems to be getting bigger and bigger.

    There probably is some correlation with them having less children though there has not been a significant reduction in fertility rate so far as such. http://www.cmq.org.uk/CMQ/2013/Feb/pics/world_fertility_rate_by_region.jpg .However you must know that if mortality rates are coming down faster than birth rates that the population will grow quicker. I’d say this UN projection doesn’t look all that clever. http://www.leeswordsfishing.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Africa-population.jpg

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  5. I suppose we could argue about what is meant by long-term and short-term, but £10bn each year over a period of a decade could potentially make a fair bit of difference. So after 10 years, if you start giving (say) 0.5% of GDP, it could be higher than 0.7% (though obviously you’ll have given up the aid that would have been donated in the mean-time). But anyway, the weaker this particular claim is, the stronger the case is for keeping aid at current levels.

    “Its kind of the ideological problem of the socialist nanny state where collectivity is more important than the individuals right to choose.”

    Ah, so I presume you’re also against taxing others to pay for the NHS and education etc? If it comes down differences in ideology and having a view that ‘taxation is theft’ (or whatever), then there’s not really much point discussing the effectiveness of aid.

    “the amount of money pumped into these countries over the years”

    I’ll directly quote Giving What We Can on this:

    “Approximately $568 billion was spent on aid programs in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1960 to 2003, and this is a lot of money. However, 43 years is a long time and there are many people in Sub-Saharan Africa. The $568 billion comes to just $13.2 billion per year and only $29 per person per year over that time. Put in its proper perspective, this is not a large amount of money. Saying ‘we already spend $29 for each person each year and yet they haven’t escaped poverty’ does not have much rhetorical force.”
    http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/why-give/myths-about-aid#2

    I do agree and accept that a fair bit of money has been wasted, but given some of the significant improvements in the area of global health (as my list above demonstrates), some of it has also been spent very effectively.

    I believe the relationship between child mortality and fertility tends to have a lag of a decade or two. But if the World Bank paper is correct and reducing child mortality is the most powerful stimulant (or even merely a very important one) of reducing fertility rates, then presumably we can either (a) do nothing and see fertility and mortality rates stay high or (b) do something and help them both come down.

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  6. I suppose actually with regards to (a), fertility and mortality rates would still come down because of general economic development. They would just come down slower than with aid helping reduce child mortality.

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  7. “Ah, so I presume you’re also against taxing others to pay for the NHS and education etc? If it comes down differences in ideology and having a view that ‘taxation is theft’ (or whatever), then there’s not really much point discussing the effectiveness of aid.”

    Actually, you are right, I do believe the NHS should be privatised. Of course the government will have to fund some public schools in the same way it has to give out some benefits as some people can’t afford nothing else. Though I would like to see an increase in the number of private schools and parents given some kind of tax credit (think thats the name) to chose whether to put it towards private education costs or use it for public schools, giving the parents more of a choice. They also need to reintroduce grammar schools right across the country giving the intelligent poor kids an oppertunity in life. Like I say charity should be a choice of the individual. The state needs to be shrunk masssively in this country.

    I read the article you posted, now the first thing we probably should have done when we started giving aid was giving contraception or teaching about it, from about 1950 to 2013, the african population has went from ~200 million to 1100 million. As a result GDP per capita has flat lined/slight decrease, the average person is not really any wealthier. I’d probably put money on the wealth in Africa being even more consolidated than before. We have let the problem become too big now, even if they had a “modest” growth in population like a double since 1950, I think Africa, with that same level of investment you stated above, may have just been a success story by now. We might have been talking bout a more self sufficient continent. Now its a race against time, by the time you build new infrastructure much more is needed. Not to mention there is not enough resourses in this world for everyone to live like a European. A population of 200-400 million Africans could have probably quite comfortably fed itself, had enough water and resourses, oil etc. to at least give the average person a decent standard of living. In my eyes its too late and the west is too bankrupt to pump money into this project any longer. They are going to have to dig themselves out of the hole they have made. Not to mention 1-2 billion africans in the future competing for resourses will actually push the rest of the world into poverty as demand will far exceeds supply.

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  8. I’m not particularly interested in discussing the size of the state here; it would soon go far off-topic. But at least people now know which political ideology you are coming from.

    I do agree that aid should have been done differently in the past, and perhaps promoting contraception should have played a bigger role.

    But we should be asking what we can do now, not complaining about what wasn’t done in the past. And if you’re concerned about overpopulation, then reducing child mortality is something you should support.

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