We need to talk (honestly) about aid

The trickle-down dogma of the aid industry is false. It is time to start distributing aid to create public goods.

Aid reuters
Aid is minuscule compared with the wealth that the industrialised world has pulled out of Africa, Asia and Latin America, writes Dearden [Reuters]

Millions of pounds of aid money will be poured into London’s financial companies to insure developing nations against floods and hurricanes, the UK government announced two weeks ago. The British tabloids responded with stories of City fat cats getting rich from our tax money. On the other side, charities defended aid, as always, as necessary for fighting extreme poverty.

It’s become so common that the script could be written in advance. The government announces a scheme aimed more at generating profits for British business than fighting poverty. Right-wing newspapers, campaigning to end aid spending, shed crocodile tears complaining that it isn’t targeted at “the poorest”. Charities, whose budgets increasingly depend on aid spending, counter that it’s the best thing since sliced bread. 

Beneath these routine arguments, the public is never allowed to engage in a more complex debate. Aid could, if radically refashioned and, preferably, renamed, play a much-needed role in redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor of the world, just as taxation does domestically. But it’s always been too tempting for governments to use it to further the interests of the powerful instead.

Over the past 10 years, aid thinking has been captured by free-market ideologues whose outdated dogma tells them that making the rich even richer is the best way to also make the poor less poor. Based on the false idea that any economic growth is bound to trickle down to the poor eventually, aid is routinely offered to help the private sector (read multinational corporations) to thrive.

That’s why today UK aid is spent setting up private schools and hospitals in Africa and Asia, contracted out to well-heeled corporate consultants, thrown into financial markets to “invest” in upmarket shopping malls and hotels, and used to “convince” the governments of African countries to make life easier for Western agribusiness. Not to mention the use of aid to prop up the post-Brexit financial centre of London. Or to help to “persuade” governments they want to negotiate a trade deal with us.

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Rather than allowing countries to design their own path out of poverty, free from dominance by Western powers, aid is used to force those counties into a predesigned path that suits the West just fine – dependent on the markets of rich countries, on international capital, on the whims of big business.

A radically different vision of aid

If aid is to have any useful future, we need to openly challenge its direction. After all, aid was originally pushed by well-meaning social justice campaigners who, in the 1960s, told industrialised governments it was their duty to redistribute some of their wealth to poorer countries, to help them to develop. In 1970, the UN passed a resolution that the amount to aim for was 0.7 percent of their gross national income. 

Today, aid should be used to create a national health service for the whole world, together with education, housing and basic income, as a public right. We should share not just money but also doctors, teachers and civil servants.


Very few countries have reached the target, but a sustained public campaign saw the Labour Party sign up to vastly increase aid in office, and Britain finally reached the target in 2013. Of course, some of that aid is spent as it should be – building education, creating decently paid jobs, expanding access to medicine. But too much isn’t.

A new report from Global Justice Now sets out a radically different vision of aid. It starts with the word itself. Aid conjures up images of a generous donor helping those who can’t help themselves.

But this is not what aid does. Aid is minuscule in comparison with the wealth which the industrialised world has pulled out of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Historically the West’s wealth is built on the resources of the developing world. Even today, the world extracts more wealth from Africa than it puts in – through tax-dodging multinationals, through unfair trade deals, through the impact of climate change.

Aid, if spent properly, is a small piece of compensation. And even if the slate was magically wiped clean, a civilised society always redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, on the understanding that everyone deserves a decent standard of living with human rights.

But this isn’t really “aid”. It’s more like a global version of domestic taxation, which is how we should conceive of aid. Our welfare state is not a gift which the super-rich control, where they spend their taxes on their favourite pet projects. Neither should rich countries control aid. It should be made accountable to recipient countries themselves: governments and citizen movements in a democratic manner.

Taxation allowed us in Europe to transform our societies. Through public health services, public education, social housing, income support, old-aged provision, ordinary people no longer had their basic needs and rights dictated by the laws of the market. Today, aid should be used to create a national health service for the whole world, together with education, housing and basic income, as a public right. We should share not just money but also doctors, teachers and civil servants.

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Educated, healthy societies would attract investment, which can be helpful providing it’s properly taxed and regulated. Aid could be used to assist in building the knowledge to do this rather than, as is now the case, used to bully and bribe countries into deregulating.

Rather than funding privatisation schemes, or so-called public-private partnerships, we should support public-public partnerships, allowing different levels of government to share control of important economic utilities – suhc as energy, telecommunications, and more. Ensuring that national industries aren’t only controlled by central government can help overcome issues of corruption and lack of accountability.

Rather than making life easier for agribusiness, we should establish a food sovereignty fund to make small farming, which is better for the environment and rural society, more viable. Land redistribution, cooperatives, access to local markets, marketing boards can all help remove the precariousness and vulnerability from farming.    

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This vision is not utopian. In fact, there are current examples to build on. A Dutch public water utility helping Mongolia’s capital to develop a modern, public water and sewage service. Funds to Zambia which are fed directly to more doctors and more teachers. A British programme to share NHS expertise and a UN programme to promote tax experts. Direct cash transfers to families so their children can go to school rather than work. Farmers teaching each other to improve productivity in an organic and sustainable manner.

These are the seeds of a better form of global wealth redistribution. If sufficient wealth was put behind such projects, and enough control given to the societies on the receiving end, poverty could be wiped out in a generation, and the world would become a much more democratic place.

If, on the other hand, we continue to pretend everything is OK and support aid uncritically, then any hint of social justice will disappear, and we will be left with a pot of money which is detrimental to the huge task of building a fairer world.   

Nick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.