Save overseas assistance


LONDON — The British government, faced with the need to make drastic cuts in government expenditure, has nevertheless decided to ring-fence the overseas aid budget and has pledged to continue to work toward the U.N. target of providing aid equivalent to 0.7 percent of GDP.

All the British political parties endorse this aim, but there are many critical voices. At a time of enforced austerity, why should overseas aid be exempted from cuts? Shouldn’t the old adage “charity begins at home” apply?

There are plenty of valid counterarguments. Countries receiving British aid have much smaller GDP per capita than Britain and suffer from widespread poverty. A common sense of humanity should induce us to give aid to the poorest countries.

There is also a significant national interest in maintaining overseas development assistance (ODA). Many of the poorest countries are unstable and provide a breeding ground for international terrorism.

We also have a broad interest in improving the economies of developing countries. Economic development in due course should lead to greater opportunities for international trade, thus contributing to world prosperity.

No right-minded person can object to aid being given to countries suffering from natural disasters such as the disastrous floods in Pakistan and the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

Government assistance has been supplemented by various nongovernmental aid agencies. Some such as UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross are international, but many other voluntary bodies in Britain are actively involved in disaster relief. These include Save The Children Fund and Oxfam.

In Britain, the Disasters Emergency Committee runs a small organization to coordinate fundraising activities following appeals for donations. Sadly, there are signs of “donor fatigue.” Despite TV pictures of devastation caused by the floods, the threat from diseases such as cholera, and the urgent need for clean drinking water and emergency supplies of food, the public response has been disappointing compared with that in the aftermath of the Haiti quake and the Southeast Asian tsunami.

One reason for the disappointing public response has almost certainly been the published accounts of bickering between nongovernmental organizations about which organization should do what. Allegations have also been made about inefficiency and waste by aid organizations. Some of these reports may be exaggerated, but they cannot be entirely discounted.

Aid organizations need to do more to pare down their administrative costs and show that money donated does lead to real improvements on the ground.

It has also been alleged that critical comments about Pakistan made by David Cameron, the British prime minister, during his recent visit to India might have added to British perceptions that elements in the Pakistani Intelligence Service support the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Cameron’s remarks were described by the Labour opposition as “fog-horn diplomacy,” and Cameron was criticized for usurping the role of the foreign secretary. Coming from the Labour Party — where Prime Minister Tony Blair and, to a lesser extent Gordon Brown, regularly upstaged their foreign secretaries — such criticism is ironic. While frankness is desirable, prime ministers do need to think carefully about the timing and phrasing of their public comments.

The aims and methods of development assistance raise many difficult issues. Should the protection of human rights and the development of democratic institutions be the prime aim of ODA? If so, should we refuse to help regimes accused of abusing human rights? Common sense suggests that we be pragmatic, but once we compromise our principles, we are on a dangerously slippery slope.

When there is famine, food aid may have to be given, but it is surely better to give assistance toward the development of sustainable agriculture. There is a danger that food aid becomes primarily a way of dumping farm surpluses.

Perhaps the most difficult problem in administering ODA is how to prevent it from being siphoned off by crooked local or international contractors and corrupt local politicians and officials.

There are too many stories of aid money ending up in anonymous Swiss bank accounts and funding luxurious lifestyles for local politicians whose fellow countrymen suffer impoverished lives in sordid and steamy slums. The most blatant example of this is Robert Mugabe, who remains president of Zimbabwe and enjoys all the luxuries while his people starve and are beaten by thugs.

China has recently become a major aid donor to African countries. In principle this is welcome, but too much Chinese aid has been used to prop up evil regimes such as those in the Sudan and Zimbabwe. Chinese aid often seems to be a cover for exploiting the natural resources of African countries.

ODA should be maintained and expanded, if possible, although the figure of 0.7 percent of GDP seems arbitrary. Was it just plucked out of the air, or is there a method to its choice?

The government alleges that there are bureaucratic inefficiencies and wasteful quangos in other government departments. There are likely similar examples of waste and inefficiency in the Overseas Development Ministry.

Has the current Japanese government recently thought through and reviewed its overseas aid budget and administration? ODA is an important element in Japan’s international profile and deserves the attention of senior ministers.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.