Future of International Aid: Helping the Helpless by Finding

By Watkins, James | Harvard International Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Future of International Aid: Helping the Helpless by Finding


Watkins, James, Harvard International Review


By 2015, we will have nearly eradicated extreme poverty and hanger throughout the world by halving the proportion of people living on under $1.25 per day. We will have achieved universal primary education worldwide, reduced child mortality rates by two thirds, and halted and reversed the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. We will have promoted gender equality, improved maternal health, and ensured environmental sustainability. Or at least, this is the promise that we made to ourselves, and to each other, almost 15 years ago.

These were the targets, noble if ambitious, that the global community set for itself at the turn of the millennium. As the 2015 deadline approaches, more than one in six human beings still lives below the 'extreme poverty' line, and nearly a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Yet political pressure in donor countries has never been higher to freeze, reduce, or even halt aid spending. As the indebted rich search for ways to save cash, the even more indebted poor seem to disappear off our moral horizons, and the future of global poverty alleviation remains unclear.

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A Lack of Commitment

To be clear, there has been some noteworthy progress toward the Millennium Development Goals: the first target of halving the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day, compared to 1990 levels, has been met due to the rapid rise in living standards in China and India, and among other parts of southern and southeastern Asia. Furthermore, there have been noticeable improvements in primary education rates, falling child mortality, and a slowing of HIV/AIDS infection rates, although these indices remain far from the 2015 targets.

Crucially, however, there has been an obvious unevenness in progress across the world: while a number of Latin American, North African, and Asian countries have met or exceeded these development goals, sub-Saharan Africa remains critically underdeveloped and abjectly impoverished. Vast swathes of the world remain beleaguered by famine, drought, disease, and war. The spectating outsider has a moral duty to do something, anything, that it can to alleviate the suffering.

In 1970, long before the Millennium Development Goals were conceived, the UN General Assembly set the developed world the target of spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid every year. Decades later, the rich are not even halfway to this aid target and in fact are going backwards. The US, although the largest aid spender in dollar terms, donates only 0.2% of GDP. Only Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the UK are committed to fulfilling this obligation in 2013.

However, this has not come without domestic resistance. In the US, aid spending in nominal terms is projected to fall over the next five years, from $44bn to $38bn. In the UK, there has been widespread conservative criticism of the government's decision to increase aid spending to 0.7% of GDP whilst other budgets face substantial cuts. Even the Netherlands, a global pioneer in aid spending, has made moves to focus its aid less on direct development assistance and more on promoting Dutch trade and investment, a backwards step according to liberal international commentators.

Ineffective Aid

Beyond wavering development commitments, the aid that we do give is not only insufficient but hopelessly ineffective. It is often argued that the billions of dollars pledged by governments rarely reach the front line where help is most desperately needed. In all too many cases, corrupt governments prevent funds from building the schools, hospitals and water resources for which they are intended.

World Bank reports suggest that an estimated half of funds dedicated for healthcare development in sub-Saharan Africa do not reach clinics and hospitals. Furthermore, an estimated 80% of funds donated to Ghana do not reach the front lines. …

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