The world of development is prone to what could be called the false-dawn syndrome. No sooner do politicians hail the reaching of a great milestone than their referees in non-governmental organisations point out their failure to deliver. The cause of alleviating poverty seemed to take a big step backwards yesterday when it was revealed that aid from rich countries to poor ones had fallen. There was much talk in 2005 that the G8 agreement at Gleneagles, and the show of global public concern shown by the Live 8 rock concerts, meant that development had moved decisively up the list of political priorities. While 2005 did bring record levels of western aid, rich countries have failed to build on that achievement. Aid slipped in 2006 by over 5% to just under $104bn, the first fall in real terms (that is, once adjusted for inflation) since 1997. Some of the richest countries were the stingiest, with the US - whose size ensures its contribution is the weightiest - cutting what it gives by a fifth. You might have thought that a superpower so evidently in need of friends would be bursting with compensatory generosity, but aid now amounts to just 0.17% of America's national income.
What makes these figures especially dispiriting is that they show rich states still see donations to the poor as some kind of game. Donors habitually gave money in ways that enrich themselves. Development veterans wearily point out that France's efforts to improve education in poor countries include offering scholarships to the Sorbonne. Likewise, debt relief, which has boosted the official tally for aid over the past two years, is of disputable benefit to those countries that receive it. Cancelling debts not due for years, or rarely if ever paid, is not the same as cash that helps the poor. Iraq has not been paying back its loans, yet yesterday's aid total includes $14bn of debt to Iraq and Nigeria. Oxfam calculates that sum is really worth only $1bn. There are more egregious examples of self-serving aid. Most people think of aid in terms of things such as wells, schools, and essential vaccinations for easily preventable diseases. It takes on more original definitions in the US aid budget for next year, which includes for such essentials as broadcasting to Cuba.
No wonder that so many people have grown so sceptical of the aid business. Go to the development shelves in a local bookshop and you will find a host of new volumes by academics and practitioners questioning aid's efficacy. The likes of the American economist Bill Easterly argue that much of the money countries give does not reach its target. His views are used as ammunition by those who see all aid as specious do-gooding. Running alongside that is the increasingly fashionable philanthropy of the super-rich. But these efforts are often concentrated on relatively easy targets, such as aspects of healthcare where tangible results can be quickly seen. The more intractable elements of development, such as rights for women, tend to get overlooked.
"We shall work to increase the flow of aid and other real resources from the industrial to developing countries, particularly to ... people who now live in absolute poverty, and to improve the effectiveness of aid." That was the statement from the G7 club of industrialised countries, not in Gleneagles but in London in 1977. Cynics may argue all that has changed since then is that the summits have moved out of cities to deter the now-traditional complement of protesters. In fact, some things have changed. Britain increased its aid last year, to become the second-biggest donor.
Whatever the flaws with the distribution of aid, it remains a minor outlay for rich countries that provides a big boost for poor ones. The argument over aid has been pretty much settled in Britain by public pressure and a sympathetic government. There is no reason why this encouraging pattern should not be repeated elsewhere.
© 2007 The Guardian