Nothing makes me feel more like a woolly liberal than the aid debate. I seem condemned to see both sides of the argument and veer between the ‘aid as salvation’ and ‘aid as imperialism’ camps. With equal vehemence and seemingly absolute certainty, aid pessimists slug it out with aid optimists, often citing the same evidence, but arriving at completely opposed conclusions. What’s particularly odd is that the most scathing sceptics often work for the aid industry, or at least for the NGOs. It’s a bit like the Automobile Association urging a mass switch to rail (if only).
The latest anti-aid salvo comes from Jonathan Glennie, in a crisp, well argued book to be published in October (one of the benefits of being in the back-cover-plug business is you get to see stuff early). Jonathan divides up the impacts of aid into
· Direct impacts: in recent years aid has funded lifesaving AIDS drugs for two million people, paid for 30 million bednets, leading to a two thirds reduction in child deaths in Rwanda, and so on. With the exception of the odd dud infrastructure project, this is strongest argument for aid.
· Policy impacts: cue big critique of economic policy conditionality, which I would share
· Institutional impacts: Glennie sees these as overwhelmingly negative. Again I would have some sympathy with this – see the revealing paper on the impact of aid on Ghana, by my colleague Emily Jones or the great article on Afghanistan in June’s Prospect magazine – but the impact of aid on institutions is complicated; healthcare and education are not just good in themselves, but vital to building accountable institutions
· Macroeconomic impacts: a somewhat flimsy discussion on whether aid does/doesn’t lead to growth, and whether growth does/doesn’t lead to poverty reduction, plus that staple debating point of aid economists, Dutch Disease.
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