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Aid memoire

Paul Vallely

VallelyA new year is a good time for a new paradigm. And one is certainly needed when it comes to the business of how best to stand in solidarity with the poorest members of our planet. Tony Blair offered one towards the end of 2011. Within a generation, no country needs be dependent on aid, our former prime minister said. Together he and Gordon Brown did more for the world's poor than any other British prime ministers in the 20th century, yet still I am not convinced.

Foreign investment in Africa is set to overwhelm the amount of aid, Blair said. He was speaking in Busan in South Korea at a conference to celebrate that country's transformation from an aid recipient to a donor. Certainly 50 years ago South Korea was the largest recipient of US aid, which helped it rise from the rubble of the 1950-53 Korean War to become a healthy democracy and a prosperous economy. It now plans to treble its aid to poor nations to about $3 billion by 2015.

The world changes, but not always in the way our political masters expect. A few weeks after the Busan conference a major study by academics at Oxford University, in conjunction with the UN's Human Development programme, announced research that showed  that most of the world's poorest people do not live in what we traditionally brand as poor nations. Instead they live in countries which we have come to regard as not just 'developing' but as 'emerging' - middle-income countries where the average annual income is as much as $12,275. Poor nations, under the same classification, are those where people earn $1,005 or less.

What the researchers measured were real indicators of poverty: malnutrition, child mortality, sanitation, education and household living standards. They found that 72 per cent of the world's poor - a mind-boggling 1,189 million people - live in middle-income countries as compared with 459 million in poor countries. Of those living in most severe poverty, twice as many are found in these richer economies. So Africa's largest oil producer, Nigeria, has more severe poverty than the poorest region of impoverished Liberia.

The implications of this are significant. In the last review of British aid the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, announced a shift in emphasis away from straightforward poverty-alleviation towards supporting states where Britain had a strategic interest, including fighting the so-called war on terror. Security concerns edged ahead of traditional aid priorities to the extent that by 2014, 30 per cent of UK aid is expected to go to war-torn and unstable countries.

Some of this was rhetoric aimed at appeasing Tory backbenchers who object to the idea that the aid budget is protected from cuts. Aid to Yemen, for example, whose lack of economic development provides a fertile recruiting ground for al-Qa'eda, will double. Yet half the children in Yemen are malnourished so aid there fulfils poverty criteria.  Most 'fragile states' score high on poverty indices.

But some of it is wrong-headed. The equalities minister Lynne Featherstone recently suggested that countries like Afghanistan that turn a blind eye to violence against women should lose British aid money. This puts gesture politics before political reality. One of the great success stories of the past decade in Afghanistan is that the number of girls enrolling in school has, thanks to Western aid, risen from zero to over 2.5 million. Yet local patriarchal culture insists girls quit school when they enter their teens, because most teachers are men. But where prejudice against women is deeply entrenched the way to tackle it is not threats from London but training Afghan girls from early on to become teachers.  That means more aid, not less.

One of the great critics of aid in the last generation has undergone a Pauline conversion. The academic William Easterley has just acknowledged that targeted programmes to fix specific problems in places not destroyed by war and corruption have produced real dividends. The US programme to put HIV-positive patients on antiretroviral treatment has saved the lives of 3.2 million people worldwide. Vaccines and oral rehydration therapy have cut global infant mortality by about a fifth in between 2000 and 2010. But where US aid has failed, he has said, reprising his old theme, is where it has been taken over by national security interests in the way that Britain is now moving towards. Aid spent in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo  was largely wasted he insists.

What the new Oxford research suggests is that neither that approach, nor the idea of traditional support for the lowest-income countries, is the best way to help the poor. Critics have poured scorn of the fact that Britain continues to give aid to India when that country stages Grand Prix races and has its own space programme. Certainly there is a need for the redirection of political priorities in India. But it remains the case that there are more people below the international poverty line in just three states in India - some 400 million - than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Economic growth may be lifting people out of poverty in China but it is not India.

We should not be despondent about aid. The UN's Millennium Development Goals in 2000 set specific targets for ending extreme poverty, reducing child mortality and raising education and environmental standards by 2015. In East Asia, the majority of 21 targets have already been met or are expected to be met by the deadline. In Africa, about half the targets are on track, including those for poverty and hunger. But what this new research shows is that if we are to make serious impact on the poverty that remains, we will have to rethink the old approach entirely. 

Paul Vallely