A Response To Forsyth On Aid And Child Mortality

Recent figures show that the rate of reduction in global child mortality is increasing. Save the Children’s chief executive, Justin Forsyth, claims that this is evidence that UK aid is working.[1] However, the statistics imply the opposite. Discounting the sparsely populated islands of Oceania, the slowest progress in reducing child mortality is in sub-Saharan Africa, the region which receives most UK aid and also where the UK has the most influence.[2]

A possible explanation is that the UK government uses aid primarily as a tool of exploitation. For example, UK aid is still conditional upon poor countries following pro-investor, anti-poor, anti-growth programs designed by the World Bank and IMF. This practice has previously been sharply condemned by UK poverty activists. Notably, in 2005 Make Poverty History wrote in a letter to Tony Blair: “Many donors, including the UK, critically undermine the effectiveness of their aid by attaching economic policy conditions. These conditions include privatisation of basic services and trade liberalisation. Such conditions are undemocratic and unfair, and often work to entrench rather than overcome poverty.”[3] In 2006, Christian Aid stated that by attaching aid to these exploitative policies, rich countries were “paying for poverty”.[4] Such criticism forced the UK government to claim that it would change direction. However, close analysis of UK aid policy reveals that no real change has materialised.[5]

The UK government is also using aid to promote increased corporate control of African agriculture with a range of harmful impacts upon the poor. For example, the Department for International Development’s (DfID’s) Food Retail Industry Challenge Fund (FRICH) is aimed at promoting export commodity production by African smallholders for sale to UK supermarkets. DfID reports that under the scheme peasants are being led to grow crops including flowers, tea, coffee and vanilla instead of food for local consumption.[6] DfID also funds the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, which makes grants of between $250,000 and $1.5 million for investments in Africa, primarily to large scale agribusiness companies[7], which Oxfam reports are increasingly taking over productive land and also water at the expense of local peasants.[8]  

At the same time, DfID funds organisations such as the Farm Input Promotions Africa company and  the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which work with partners such as Monsanto, Arcadia Biosciences, DowAgro, Pioneer/DuPont and other chemical giants to promote inputs to smallholders under the banner of “improving productivity”.[9]  Whilst the inputs often fail in the narrow aim of increasing productivity, they also carry both ecological and financial risks. For example, farmers report that once they use certain chemical fertilizers they cannot grow on the same soil again without using the same expensive chemicals and some land is permanently damaged. Meanwhile, the “improved” GM seeds are expensive and farmers who use them are often forced into high-cost contracts (one reason is that hybrid GM seeds often do not self-replicate) contributing to widespread financial difficulties. [10]   

Aid may also be helping the UK to influence poverty groups in Africa negatively. For example, observers in Rwanda point out that Western aid provided to non-governmental organisations (often first going through UK charities) works to discourage them from political advocacy and promoting social reform.[11]  Instead, anti-poverty groups are supposed to focus only on technical project work (digging wells etc.) while ignoring underlying socio-economic problems. The result of this process is to further reduce the impact of the poor on policy-making, making it less likely that their concerns will be addressed.

Forsyth ignores these (and other) harmful processes associated with UK aid, and instead focuses only on the surface impacts, such as increased immunisation programs. Aid for this type of work would be of unquestionable benefit if it came without strings attached, but the reality is that it comes with very heavy strings which perhaps outweigh the benefits. Nevertheless, it is perhaps understandable that Forsyth chooses to completely ignore this problem. In 2011 Save the Children received £54.3m from the UK aid budget - seemingly enough to pay for the organisation’s leader’s blindness to the darker side of aid.[12]

David Dominic is an NGO consultant living in London.
Website: Daviddominic.blogspot.com

Twitter @DavidDominic3

[2] UN Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality, ‘Levels and Trends in Child Mortality’, http://bit.ly/QZT8uZ p.9

[3] Make Poverty History, Letter to Tony Blair, 2005, p 24

[4]Christian Aid, ‘Time for Climate Justice’, available at http://www.christianaid.org.uk/images/climate-campaign-pack10-guide.pdf p.10

[10] For example, see the film  ‘Seeds of Freedom’ http://seedsoffreedom.info/

[11] Oscar Kimanuka, Sunday Times, Rwanda. Available at: http://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/index.php?a=11650&i=14942

[12] Save the Children annual report, available at: http://bit.ly/P98DpL p. 31 

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