Foreign aid: It makes us feel better, but does it work?

Development experts argue that while emergency aid is essential, other types of aid can do more harm than good

Last month, a high-profile fundraising campaign, Danmarks Indsamlingaid, generated over 80 million kroner that 12 aid organisations – including Save the Children, Unicef and Red Cross – will disperse to a variety of aid programmes in Africa. On March 10, it will be aid organisation Folkekirkens Nødhjælp’s turn.

Denmark spent over 16 billion kroner on aid to developing countries in 2012, which is 0.83 of its Gross National Income (GNI), placing Denmark as the fourth biggest aid donor per capita in the world, just behind Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg.


Over the past 50 years, over one trillion dollars of international aid has been sent to Africa in an effort to deal with the poverty and hunger that has become a mainstay in a number of African nations. 


It hasn’t worked yet


Opponents of sending aid to developing countries argue that development aid simply doesn’t work, pointing to statistics that indicate that in the 1970s, ten percent of Africans lived on a dollar a day while today that figure is a staggering 70 percent. 


Danish development expert Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen advocates sending money to countries whose governments have shown a willingness to actDr Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a Danish economist and policymaker who won the 2001 World Food Prize, contends that aid is indeed very important if it is used in the right way, arguing that the responsibility for overcoming poverty ultimately rests with the African governments themselves.


“All we can do is assist, and that is why I have been arguing for a very long time that we should only send money to those countries that have allocated a reasonable amount of their own resources to achieve poverty, hunger and economic development goals,” Pinstrup-Andersen told The Copenhagen Post.


Pinstrup-Andersen went on to suggest that there were two ways to spend the money effectively. The first is to only give money to governments that have shown a willingness to improve the lives of their people, and the second is to help NGOs mobilise civil society to improve the lives of people if governments won’t act.


“You can circumvent governments that have different objectives and work with governments that share your development objectives.  But ultimately, if you want my money, you should be ready to invest some of your own money into the same cause,”  Pinstrup-Andersen said.


“A band-aid solution”


A Zambian economist, investment strategist and author Dr Dambisa Moyo, has maintained for years that international aid actually stifles Africa’s development, arguing that sound economic policies, and not foreign aid, helped to lift millions of Asians out of poverty. 


“Let’s understand what charitable intervention can or cannot do. It can send a girl to school, for example, but it will never make these economies grow to the requisite levels so that we can put a meaningful dent into poverty” Moyo told Canadian news channel TVO. “It may be a good idea in the short-term but it’s not going to help in the long-term. To me, it is a band-aid solution."


One component of aid collection that is damaging, argues Jacob Ruben, a project development manager at Danish development organisation Quercus Group, is that in order to raise funds, aid organisations tend to project a negative picture of Africa. They project imagery of homeless orphans lying in the streets and tend to forget or ignore all the positives that are present.


“A lot of NGOs operate in developed countries rather than developing countries. They work to, I would argue, promote an image of developing countries where aid is the most important way to get people out of poverty,” Ruben told The Copenhagen Post. “It’s challenging. On one hand they have an agenda, a goal. Their business depends on people donating money, so in order to do this they must maintain a certain image.”

The imagery used in aid campaigns often gives the impression that Africans are a downtrodden bunch, but can be made happy with generous donations from the West (Photo: Lars Just / Danmarks Indsamling)

Images that elicit emotion


Ruben’s argument is backed up by Folkekirkens Nødhjælp’s effort to attract volunteers for their upcoming aid collection drive. Commuters are shown stark images of downtrodden Africans, and on the organisation’s website, it lists some reasons why one should become a volunteer.


‘Because a child dies of hunger every 12 seconds’, ‘Because you support the fight against hunger in the world’s poorest nations’ and ‘Because no mother should see her child die of hunger’, are a few of the slogans.


Ruben suggested that, while there are lots of NGOs that do good work and do have an impact, decades of relying on aid means that many African nations are heavily dependent on aid as part of their national budget.


“NGOs are more the ‘we are here to help you’ plan rather than the more valuable ‘we are here to help you help yourself’. Aid can have an impact, but the most essential thing is to have a private sector that is concerned with poverty and a government that is dedicated to the poor,” Ruben told The Copenhagen Post. Why have some Asian countries developed so much more since the 1950’s in comparison to Africa? Is it because of aid? No, it’s because of national development policy efforts and poverty reduction efforts.”


Folkekirkens Nødhjælp’s campaign posters read ‘No mother should watch her child die of hunger’ (Photo: Folkekirkens Nødhjælp)

Emergency aid is vital


Despite the somewhat dissimilar views on the issue of development aid in general, Pinstrup-Andersen, Moyo and Ruben all agreed that the aid that is diverted to assisting in emergency humanitarian disasters, such as the floods in Pakistan in 2010, are absolutely imperative.


Part of Danmarks Indsamling’s proceeds did go to emergency aid, as did 42 percent of Folkekirkens Nødhjælp’s final figure in 2011 according to its website. A significant part of Danmarks Indsamling’s aid in 2010 went to assist in the humanitarian disaster that occurred in Haiti following the earthquake in 2010. 


“Emergency relief is critical. But we must move away from that in the long run and move countries out of poverty so they can deal with disasters themselves in the future,” Dr. Pinstrup-Andersen said.


In 2011, Folkekirkens Nødhjælp managed to raise 528.7 million kroner and 45 percent of those funds were sent to Africa. Tomorrow, March 10, volunteers from the aid organisation will be looking to add to that when they hit the streets in their latest efforts to claim donations. 

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