Speed eating & the UK aid review

Speed eating has never particularly appealed to me as a spectator sport. (Even less as a competitor!) And yet that was the metaphor that sprang to mind on reading the results of UK’s aid review.

First the good news (gourmet starter): reducing the number of countries in which DFID works has to be a good thing for efficiency. If you better understand a country then you are better able to help it. Moreover if you are contributing a big chunk of money your influence with that country and how it chooses to spend the aid you give rises accordingly. Dropping countries like Russia and China was also a bit of a no-brainer. Even more encouraging was to see a bit of carrot and stick waving at UN agencies. If they’re not achieving anything very much then don’t fund them – that get’s a high five from me! Finally I fully support the results focused agenda (so long as this is defined sufficiently broadly so as not to limit aid to things that can easily be counted).

Now for the carbs-packed entrée: some countries (Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan) are due for big increases in aid. These countries, and others which will continue to receive big wads of cash (e.g. Afghanistan, Sudan – presumably the southern bit – and Tanzania) are the ones through to the speed eating final in which they have to gorge themselves as much as possible in the course of a year. And then come back for desserts the year after, and the year after that, and … you get the picture!

“Governance standards in the target area will be a key constraint on the viability of any proposed solutions.”

That was me, just yesterday, blogging on humanitarian emergency response.  It seems to me this applies ten times over when committing many millions to another national government. None of the five getting big increases strike me as doing particularly well on that front. Ethiopia is perhaps the most interesting example, in that it enjoys a reputation for relatively efficient distribution of aid, but whose government is increasingly autocratic and intolerant of dissent. Whilst I am sure there are many local complexities of which I am unaware (I don’t know the country), it seems to be pretty inescapable that substantial aid will serve in some way or other to prop up the existing government.

News from North Africa over the last few weeks have shown the danger of supporting autocratic regimes: from “Made in the USA” stamped on tear gas canisters used by the police in Egypt, whilst the UK government faced extremely awkward questions over its arms sales to Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. These things, it seems, have a nasty habit of coming back to bite one in the proverbial later on.

The term “absorptive capacity” is a pernicious one: the implication that I can manage resources properly but you cannot is pretty insulting, especially coming from the sorts of organisations that typically use it (“lot’s of staffing, lots of activity, b****r all impact”). But at these highest levels, it surely has to be considered. Aid is not the kind of sector in which  doubling the inputs leads to a doubling of the outputs, there are serious problems of diminishing returns; simply turning on the tap is not the solution.  In particular I really question to what extent DFID has considered absorptive capacity of recipient countries not just at the top, but at the bottom; at the last mile of aid delivery.

The trouble with speed eating, of course, is the serious danger contestants will vomit back everything they’ve just rammed down their throats. I really hope that DFID’s chosen star contestants do not end up vomiting all over their benefactor’s feet.


One response to this post.

  1. […] Wood’s demolition of Lord Ashcroft’s ill-informed ‘golden taps’ diatribe), I actually agree to some extent with the aid critics. DIFD should drop its misguided focus on the entirely […]


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