Should Governments Fix the Rates of Foreign Aid?

(This should stimulate an argument)

Britain is continuing to not-quite discuss the issue of whether it should be a part of Europe. There are essentially three sides: yes, no and if we can negotiate a better deal for ourselves. But no side, yet, has been clear about the benefits of their view or the problems with other views. Leaving Europe will affect our trade, somehow. We deserve a better deal from Europe, for some reason. Staying in Europe will create more jobs, apparently. It’s all speculative nonsense and if you try to read up on it yourself, it looks like no one can tell the truth on the issue.

So I’ve decided to talk about something else: foreign aid. The foremost reason I want to talk about it is to dispel an old myth: aid leads to corruption. When one country takes a large sum of money and gives it to a few people in the government of another country, then corruption is rife. But if you want to have a sensible conversation about aid, that is simply not the type of aid you talk about.

The real aid, aid that actually helps the people of a country is activities like building infrastructure, eradicating disease, securing clean water, and offering legal and social support to bridge inequality gaps. These things are real aid. And, thanks to the insidious nature by which they infiltrate communities, it is now non-Government organisations like Churches and religious charities that are best positions to deliver on these activities. This type of aid also offers a model of service-delivery that governments should pay a lot of attention to: outsourcing responsibilities it knows it’s not good at. The government knows that it doesn’t really know how to offer this type of aid, so it outsources it to people who can.

I could get on my high horse and say that this aid should be offered by non-religious organisations. Aid should be available without a religious tint. But it would take years, if not decades for non-religious groups to get roots in communities at a level that would allow them to change things for the better.

But the question was one of whether government should fix a rate of aid to foreign countries. Let get the obvious element of that question out-of-the-way first: should we offer anything? I think the answer is obviously yes. Malaria, starvation, malnutrition and no clean water are all problems I don’t have to worry about. And these are also all problems that are much worse than unemployment and banking reform (cheaper to fix, too). I challenge anyone to say (and to mean) “that 1 million people are unemployed is worse than the fact 1 million people are starving to death”. The problems of the countries we might offer aid to run deeper than our own. Much deeper. And despite the deficit, we do have the money to help. Moral considerations aside, successful aid makes countries wealthier. Wealthier countries have more benefits for trading with them. Aid can, quite accurately, be seen as an investment.

But should we fix the rate? Should we tie our own hands? Should the current government be allowed to tie the hands of future governments? Basically, no. We don’t know what will come in the future, and we can’t commit to things like that. If our country becomes poorer we will need to stay flexible on the amount of aid we offer. Minor (but very real) issues we have in our own country with homeless and starving people will be worse if we get poorer, and we shouldn’t have to commit to aid at whatever level we can afford now. Similarly, if we become a much wealthier country, we should not become complacent and feel the rate we could afford before is now enough.

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