“Development aid over time has changed some things beyond belief,” Julie Carpenter told members of the Banbury Constituency Labour Party during an enjoyable social evening (with delicious curry) at the Jaypur Restaurant in Banbury this week. “Vaccination programmes have saved lives and educational development programmes have allowed millions more children to enter primary education in even the poorest countries.”
Julie has been working as a consultant and advisor to government agencies and educational institutions in African and other countries for 25 years and has witnessed recent changes in the way development aid is delivered with some concern.
UK hits the target
She welcomed the fact that in 2014-15 the UK Government is meeting the United Nations target a development aid budget of 0.7% of Gross National Income(£11billion or 7p in £10 of income), but said that development issues and problems now tend to be oversimplified and short term projects are favoured.
Who benefits from the aid?
Julie shared her expert assessment of the effectiveness of official government aid to developing countries. For some years now, Labour and the current Tory/Lib Dem governments have stopped funding long term development programmes in education and moved to 3-4 year projects. This inhibits long term planning and, with investments often made according to priorities of the donor government, is not necessarily in the best interests of the recipient country.
“It is easy to build schools inside a short term project period, but having an impact on improving the quality of primary education within a 3-4 year period is much more difficult,” she said. And development projects are all now required to show measurable results which can satisfy auditors: you can count the number of schools built or desks provided, but measuring changes in the quality of education that the child receives is much more complicated and long-term.
“We live in an increasingly unequal world in which accidents of geography and patterns of exploitation – often legacies of the colonial past – have affected the life chances of people in the poorest nations.” Too often countries rely on single commodities, such as minerals, coffee or tea, whose prices have been falling relative to manufactured goods over decades. Diversification is essential, but this demands new skills and capabilities.
The imbalance between the country’s own economy and development aid received can sometimes get out of hand: for example, development funding controlled by donor governments accounts for 75% of all government spending in Sierra Leone which is in effect, therefore, run by other countries.
Sadly, the often contentious politics of the rich, donor countries dictate where global development money goes: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq currently receive the lion’s share of global official development funding, and not the 10 poorest countries. Palestine has a larger share of development money per head of population than any other country in the world: perhaps as a sop to the conscience of Western Governments?
Local people are losing their voice
The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has been downsized over the last two decades and has lost a lot of professional staff who used to be posted to work on the ground in developing countries. Management of most of the UK’s education development programmes is now contracted out and channelled through large charities like Oxfam, Save the Children or Action Aid and increasingly through management consultancy firms, such as Price Waterhouse, whose own personnel lack experience in development.
It is true that there is often corruption, and countries are not always well organised to use development funds properly, partly because of a shortage people with the right skills, competencies and experience. Trying to combat corruption and waste is not easy if there are not the experts on the ground who understand local communities and their circumstances and who can support the project and really involve the local people in a way which is relevant to their needs.
Re-iterating her commitment to the concept and moral imperative of development aid, Julie described, as an example of how well-designed development projects can make a huge difference, a recent £14 million pounds DFID education project in South Sudan which has given almost every primary school child 5 new textbooks and thereby boosted their educational chances. But she called for change.
Put experts back in the field
Experience in many countries has shown that we need more of our own experts on the ground to influence UK policy and establish good relationships with recipient governments and communities: “I want the Labour Government to restore DFID’s local presence in developing countries where UK aid can make a difference – our policy must be to have professional advisors in the field, helping local people to make lasting change.”