Comment: Refuting the UK’s aid myths

Tarring all NGOs with the Kony 2012 brush is a bit like holding the whole of the private sector to account for a BP oil spill.

By Francis West

Overseas aid isn't popular. It has a limited impact in reducing poverty and fuels corrupt dictators, it creates unsustainable dependence on Western governments and feeds an NGO community more interested in selling wristbands than improving people's lives. Or so the sceptics claim.

Faced with such criticism, it is hardly surprising that public reaction to the government's plans to enshrine in law its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of UK gross national income (GNI) on aid has been lukewarm at best. But while some of the concerns which fuel public indifference to aid and NGOs are fairer than others, aid remains critical to ensuring the health, livelihood and survival of some of world's poorest people.

One area where the UK's investment in aid has had a tangible impact is in the prevention and control of malaria. The disease kills 655,000 people every year, degrades education levels and household incomes and negatively impacts the economies of the worst affected countries by 1.3% per annum. However, with the UK leading efforts to fight malaria, deaths attributable to the disease have fallen worldwide by 20% from 2000 to 2009, with 11 African countries experiencing a reduction of 50% in malaria cases and deaths in the same period.

So too is this investment value for money. The £500 million a year that George Osborne pledged to combat malaria (when on a 2007 trip to Uganda during opposition) equates to approximately a tenth of the cost to build the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the ill-fated aircraft carrier that won't be configured to carry fighter jets and that will be mothballed after only three years. It is also less than the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has spent on external consultants alone over the last two years.

By contrast, malaria interventions proven to save lives are cheap. With cutting edge long-lasting insecticide treated nets (LLINS) costing £5, rapid diagnostic tests that can determine whether a child has malaria in 15 minutes and effective anti-malarial drugs costing less than £1 each, £500 million goes an awfully long way. More generally, public concerns about the UK’s aid bill are grossly inflated. A 2007 poll showed that the public estimated that 19% of the entire UK budget is spent on aid – a stark contrast with the reality that in 2013 just 1.6 pence in every pound of government’s spend will go on overseas aid.

Assertions that corruption obstructs the delivery of aid and supplies despotic regimes have endured since the controversial claims that Live Aid money supported Mengistu Haile Mariam's forced collectivisation policy in Ethiopia. Almost 30 years later, transparency is the cornerstone of the UK's aid policy, the coalition having spearheaded the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and established the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) to scrutinise the impact of the Department for International Development's (DfID) spend. For his part, the international development secretary Andrew Mitchell has stood by his 'zero tolerance approach' to corruption, with DfID suspending support to Malawi in July 2011 after misgivings over 'economic governance'.

That malaria commodities, such as nets and anti-malarial drugs, and health outcomes (literally lives saved) can be tracked and measured only helps to increase the transparency of UK aid. Driven by an unwavering focus on results, DfID aims to help halve malaria deaths in at least ten of the worst affected countries by 2015, a target to which the UK government and its partner organisations will be held.

A further string to the bow of aid critics is the apparent dependency the system creates on financial flows from 'donor' governments and its failure to build the capacity of domestic institutions. These are criticisms which demand attention and, for the most part, are receiving answers. DfID has made it quite clear that where appropriate, it will reduce the levels of financial support it disburses – and not just to the emerging economies. The Department's Zambia office Operational Plan 2011-2015 underlines the intended reduction in aid to the country "in the medium term" and for the Zambian government to use "its own resources to achieve the [millennium development goals] MDGs and sustain growth built on private sector investment". 

Likewise, national governments in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere are being actively encouraged to meet obligations on their own spending, such as the Abuja Declaration that commits signatories to a health budget of 15% of national expenditure.

In Malaria Consortium, our projects must work to enhance the existing health systems structures and skills of formal health workers wherever possible. Equally, many NGOs, like us, are aware of the need to work with the private sector, for example collaborating with mosquito net manufacturers to create sustainable demand and supply for their products.

Perhaps the most salient criticisms, given the recent debate around Invisible Children’s Kony 2012, are of the nature of NGOs themselves. Invisible Children has rightly been attacked for drastically simplifying the situation in Uganda, for its evangelical tone and its call to purchase the organisation's 'action kit' and wristband. Nevertheless, while this particular NGO received no UK funding, there is undoubtedly a need for organisations that have skills in the area of campaigning to raise awareness of issues that rarely feature in mainstream news or on formal political agendas. That people tend to respond to celebrity pleas or a colourful wristband is hardly the fault of NGOs; it is merely professional and pragmatic (two characteristics charities are often criticised for lacking) that these organisations use the most effective tools available to them.

On the other hand, not all NGOs are campaign-focussed and instead concentrate on implementation and/or research. Malaria Consortium's work in Uganda on strengthening the system by which children suffering from fever are referred from rural areas to formal health facilities is hardly a public relations dream, but it is critical work when just six hours of a malaria-induced fever can be the difference between recovery and permanent neurological damage. Tarring all NGOs with the Invisible Children brush is a bit like holding the whole of the private sector to account for a BP oil spill.

It is perfectly legitimate for the British public to demand transparency around the UK's aid spend, as it is for the media to scrutinise the information made available to them. What is not reasonable, however, is for exaggerations around aid to persist in the face of evidence to the contrary and for a lack of public recognition of the tangible results of aid to derail the UK's progress in supporting those people most in need. The example of the UK’s investment in malaria is a case in point. We have the tools and the track record to reduce the devastating impact of the disease, and yet a child still dies of malaria every 60 seconds. Without the UK’s continued financial and political leadership on this issue, along with that of partner organisations such as the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria, that fact will not change. So, on 9th May, when the Queen announces the government's intention to embed in law its commitment to spend 0.7% of the UK’s GNI on overseas aid, the public should recognise the contribution as one that delivers a remarkable return on what is not such an overwhelming investment.

Francis West is the advocacy officer for Malaria Consortium. Wednesday 25 April 2012 is World Malaria Day.

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