The global war on aid

Paul Currion

If you have been working in a UK-based aid organisation over the past few years, you might have noticed a new risk appearing in your logframe: what if the Daily Mail goes after my project?

Despite being unelected, unaccountable and uninformed about the aid industry, the Daily Mail (and its sibling Mail on Sunday) loves to attack anything that looks like poor people getting hold of UK taxpayers’ money. It doesn’t matter who those poor people are – the Mail is an equal opportunity Scrooge, willing to snatch coins from the hand of anybody it doesn’t like the look of.

This month it particularly doesn’t like the look of Pakistanis queuing at ATMs. “Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse,” squeals the Mail, “YOUR cash is doled out in envelopes and on ATM cards loaded with money.” The cash in question is part of Pakistan’s Benazir Income Support Programme, but the Mail spends the next 4,000 words whipping up outrage about cash transfers in general, ending with the big question: are cash transfers “a sensible use of public money”?

This attack might seem strange, since evaluations show that humanitarian cash transfers increase efficiency, transparency and accountability – exactly what the Mail claims to want from foreign aid.

Things become clearer when you recognise that the point of these articles is not to inform readers but to enrage them. In 2016 the Mail set up a petition to stop the UK spending 0.7 percent of GDP on foreign aid, and published an 8-point Foreign Aid Manifesto which had scrapping the 0.7 percent aid pledge at number one. The other seven points were surprisingly solid – point three, for example, demands a crackdown on contractors getting rich.

The problem is that these points are delivered with minimum nuance to generate maximum outrage. If you need more evidence, just read their more recent article exposing “charity chiefs pocketing massive salaries and bonuses”.

I don’t think many in the aid industry are prepared to die on the hill of David Milliband’s salary; it would be a pointless exercise because the Mail is just an early warning indicator. The UK now has a Secretary of State for International Development who doesn’t think her department should exist.

Things aren’t much better across the Atlantic. It’s anybody’s guess what will happen in the US, the world’s single largest donor, following the election of Donald Trump. The President-elect has barely mentioned overseas aid, and only ever in the context of his zero-sum view of the world. His most expansive comment when asked about humanitarian aid on Fox News was: “I would try so hard to keep some of these countries going, but… we are a debtor nation”. The reason for this lack of detail seems pretty obvious: he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care.

Sure enough, as of December 2016, USAID had not received a call from Trump’s transition team, which means one of two things. Either USAID will be ignored for the next four years, or it’s at the mercy of any Republican who can summon the energy to get rid of it completely. Here’s a clue: a Pew research poll last year found that 57 percent of respondents thought that the US should “deal with their own problems / let others deal with theirs as best they can.”

As their Manifesto illustrates, the Mail’s critique of foreign aid is not completely off-target, but it promotes an outdated understanding of aid – specifically Live Aid circa 1985 – in which the only type of aid that’s acceptable is White Saviours flying around the world. Everything that doesn’t fit that paradigm, all the progress that we’ve made in improving the delivery of aid in the last 30 years, will increasingly be questioned.

Where the US and the UK go, other countries are likely to follow as multilateralism loses ground. Faced with the prospect of a war of attrition in which the global poor are likely to be collateral damage, it’s worth remembering that the real problem the populist right has with overseas aid is not how it is spent, but that it exists at all.

The Mail comments section demonstrates this view clearly and, as befits its aging demographic, it’s an old school classic. As the UK’s National Health Service descends into its own “humanitarian crisis” – partly due to seasonal ill-health, but mainly due to misguided policies – populists press the case for cutting overseas aid entirely in favour of domestic                    causes.

In this context defending cash transfers or explaining CEO pay packets, while necessary, will not be enough to change the minds of those already opposed to foreign aid. Nor will the war on aid be won through the usual NGO tactics of hand-wringingly polite press releases and slickly-edited testimonials. In an age of fake news, this is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

The aid industry needs to connect to their public using innovative approaches like GDLive, which provides recipients a platform to talk about the impact that cash transfers have had on their lives. We might even need to use Meme Magic to ensure the message gets through: aid is not just a sensible use of public money – if we do it right, it’s one of the best uses of public money. – IRIN

January 2017
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