British aid: “value for money” – but what values?

A year and a half ago, the then-opposition leader David Cameron announced the so-called MyAid plan for Britain's development policy. The idea is to the get the British public involved in policy by letting them vote on ten ongoing Department for International Development (DfID) projects. The voting would determine where £40m-worth of Britain's aid budget would be spent.

This proposal was quite rightly condemned very quickly by NGOs for effectively turning aid policy into a popularity contest. The proposal can be seen within a wider range of Conservative initiatives that together represent a vacuous and shallow view of what a participatory society should involve. Like Cameron's now-abandoned plan to host town hall-style meetings to discuss the 'Big Society' (hey, another vacuous concept!), the fallacy of this kind of direct democracy is that it can so easily turn into a populist shouting match: those who will be most affected by proposed policies likely have the smallest voice with which to raise concerns, and will simply be crowded out of the debate.

This is especially a problem when it comes to discussions over foreign aid, which continues to be one of the most controversial and divisive public discourses. On the one hand you have those who claim aid just doesn't work, that it causes more harm than good in developing countries and should therefore be abandoned. On the other hand there are those who push for a substantial increase in aid. This simplistic debate has its own celebrity personifications: think Dambisa Moyo versus Bono.

The faultlines in this debates have surfaced once again in the context of DfID's unusual budgetary position vis-a-vis other government departments. While most departments have seen their budgets slashed by Britain's Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, DfID is one of the few to see its budget ringfenced. International development is set to see its resource spending increase by 35% over the next three years, rising to £9bn by 2015. As Nick Young points out, on the face of it this represents a strange ideological paradox: while government figures rail against the market-impairing effects of welfare support here at home, it staunchly opposes the same critiques when levelled against foreign aid (see for instance the recent exchange between Dambisa Moyo and members of the International Development Committee when Moyo appeared before the IDC as an expert witness).

So what's the deal? Well for one thing the increase isn't quite what it appears. The aid spending will be 'backloaded' to the extent that the budget itself will actually change little over the next three years, then supposedly jump by about a quarter in the fourth year (quite a feat to pull off). This continues a familiar story where aid spending always looks larger than it is: ActionAid's 2005 & 2006 reports Real Aid were crucial in demonstrating that at least half of all Official Development Assistance from donors was 'phantom aid' diverted for purposes other than development.

More significantly perhaps, it's important to look at DfID's budget increase in the context of wider changes to aid budgeting. Chancellor George Osborne is committed to linking foreign aid more closely with Britain's 'national security objectives'. Britain's new national security council is now requiring that projects in the developing world make the “maximum possible contribution” to that security, a process which will see aid spent in “fragile and conflicted states” grow to a third of the overall budget. This represents, as many NGOs have been fearing, the continuing securitisation of development policy, whereby development projects become part of counterinsurgency strategy in countries such as Afghanistan, leaving less geopolitically-strategic developing countries out in the cold. Never mind the recent welcome discussion of aid to Egypt's military dictatorship – Britain's entire international development strategy is now a matter of securing British interests abroad no matter what the cost to those actually in need.

But there's more to this story than just post-9/11 militarisation. The ringfencing of DfID's budget, in conjunction with periodic stories of foreign aid being corrupted by greedy interests abroad (Afghanistan being no exception) has only further emboldened aid's critics, whose views it now seems are shared by a majority of the British public. As a public display of recognition of this view, the coalition government has committed to making sure Britain “is getting full value for money” from its aid spending. This has included setting up a high-level commission on aid effectiveness and forcing civil servants to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of aid projects. Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell describes this as a “new focus [on] rigorously measuring the impact aid money is having on the ground”, part of a “quiet revolution sweeping the development community… scaling up what works and ending what doesn't”.

Problem is, this isn't a new focus at all. The notion of a harm-benefit analysis related to foreign aid has been around since at least the 1990s, popularised by American aid consultant Mary Anderson with her book Do No Harm. Back then the rationale behind a 'do no harm' principle was to preserve the eroding sense of neutrality in humanitarian assistance. The transfer of cost-benefit analysis to development assistance indicates the reality of a blurry boundary between humanitarianism and development.

The idea of 'value for money' may not be new, but its articulation in the context of a 'war on terror' approach to development aid is significant. Drawing up a framework for measuring aid's effectiveness gives Mitchell and the coalition government a great opportunity to shape the discourse over aid's purpose and method of functioning. Will the new high-level commission be using ActionAid's detailing of the extent of 'phantom aid' as a starting point to measure aid's effectiveness? This seems unlikely, for the simple reason that the work of ActionAid and others suggests that foreign aid isn't really designed with the interests of developing country populations in mind.

A discourse of finally being able to “measure what projects achieve for the world's poorest people” maintains the idea that any problems with foreign aid can simply be corrected through adjustments akin to management decisions: change a measurement here, re-balance distribution there. As Mark Duffield once put it, the politics of aid becomes an issue of measurable inputs and predictable outcomes, rather than assessing the very real consequences of being able to decide who and what aid should target. The notion of 'value for money' handily obscures questions such as whether Britain's international development agenda should be geared towards integrating developing countries into the global market by supporting the private sector, or indeed whether DfID should be managed like a private company at all. While British aid promotes private sector growth, Christian Aid estimates that liberalisation policies have cost sub-Saharan Africa $272 billion over the past twenty years, ironically the same amount the region received in aid.

Britain's new aid agenda, then, represents a further obfuscation of the political structure of foreign aid. This agenda wraps itself in the mantra of accountability to the public; yet it seems the public would rather aid be spent on the promotion of human rights than have priority placed on 'national security' or global market integration. But more important than what the British public think is what people in the recipient countries want. This is why populist ideas like MyAid are so damaging: they further entrench the legitimacy of the unspoken assumption that those affected by foreign aid shouldn't really get a say in how it's structured. It may be My Aid, but it's Their Lives.

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