We live in an unequal world: each year billions of dollars are directed at reducing some of the gaps between rich and poor, and bringing basic healthcare and education to those without these life-enhancing resources. But at grassroots level international aid often fails to make a real difference. Where are we going wrong?

Throughout the world, there is a growing realisation that we cannot achieve economic or environmental sustainability without addressing social inequality, the worst manifestation of which is extreme poverty

Anne Radl

Aid is an emotive issue. The disparity between nations, and groups within them, are the outcome of a myriad of factors – political and cultural as well as environmental. The act of giving (and receiving) is charged with meaning and skews the relationships, and balance of power, between those who have and those who don’t. The world produces enough food for everyone: shortages of staples are the result of market structures and a failure in distribution. These are complex challenges to address at a time when the global population is growing and climate change is bringing added problems.

We asked three people to answer our questions. Dr Emma Mawdsley is a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. She is author From Recipients to Donors, an analysis of the 'rising powers' as providers of development assistance. Adam Pain holds positions at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala. He has worked in the Himalayas since 1991 as a policy advisor (Bhutan) and researcher (Nepal). Since 2001, he has been collaborating with a research institute in Afghanistan, studying rural economies. In partnership with Afghan colleagues, he has set up a carpet company working with Turkmen women on fair trade principles. Anne Radl is programmes manager at the Humanitarian Centre, an international development network with strong links to Cambridge University. Her background is in community and network building to tackle social inequalities and injustice, particularly in health. She has worked with vulnerable groups in the US and South America.

  Is there a moral imperative for the rich to help the poor?
Emma Mawdsley Yes, I believe so - there are moral compunctions that bring together 'distant strangers', as well as those in need closer to home. That said, while foreign aid certainly has its place, it is generally not the most politically progressive or effective way of reducing poverty. But in any case, I don't think we have to rely on moral arguments for aid or other transfers from rich to poor: there is plenty of evidence that everyone - rich and poor - benefits from less poverty and greater equality. Self-interest should be enough to push us towards a more just distribution of resources, through fair taxation systems, for example.

Adam Pain Moral and pragmatic arguments can be used to justify aid: both can make a compelling and principled case. Addressing inequalities of access to basic entitlements and rights is an issue of justice; ensuring greater equality is self-interested. However, the moral imperative is commonly subverted by aid practice and the pragmatic one by hubris. We had thought, for example in Afghanistan, that by bureaucratic means we could rapidly transform societies; the evidence has shown that we cannot.

Anne Radl Moral arguments can be tricky: whose morality are we talking about? When you look into the anthropology and history of aid, you find that the ‘moral imperative to help the poor’—especially the poor outside of your family, community and country—is not universal. I often get asked if we have a moral imperative to end poverty in Britain before we send aid overseas. Sometimes when we invoke moral arguments, we are trying to reach people on a level deeper than the intellect, to inspire them to act. There are different ways to get people to think about—and feel—our shared humanity and consider a more equitable distribution of resources.   We need to be flexible in the language and arguments we use.

  What are the goals we should be working towards?
EM Absolute poverty is a scourge, and completely unnecessary in a world in which we currently produce enough food and have enough resources to ensure that everyone could have access to the basics of a good life. But it is rising inequality - nationally and globally - that is just as pernicious and destabilising, as well as manifestly unjust. Our goals should be eradicating poverty, addressing rising inequality, and getting serious about tackling climate change: a huge political challenge, of course.

AP As a mobilising force, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed by the UN and its partners, are as good as any and address some of the dimensions of inequality. However, greater attention needs to be given to the right to food security at a time tightening world food supplies and under conditions of increased risk associated both with climate change and markets. A major food security crisis in Nepal 2009 was attributed to a collision of crises due to climate change, a global food price spike, trade restrictions by India and a relative decline in domestic food production.

AR With the MDGs expiring in 2015, we have an opportunity to shape new goals to bring about fundamental changes to the social, economic, environmental and governance systems that underlie so many of the inequalities in our world. No matter what goals we agree on (and there are some righteous ones proposed, like ending extreme poverty once and for all), we will not achieve them if we are not thinking about how we are working towards them. We need more spaces that overcome barriers between disciplines, sectors and countries and help us understand each other’s perspectives and priorities. It’s crucial that ‘we’ includes communities living in poverty.

  Does current practice in aid and development need rethinking?
EM Current aid orthodoxies are in a period of complete upheaval right now. The 'poverty reduction' message of the last 15 years, and the focus on the 'soft wiring' of development (anti-corruption, education, social wellbeing, neoliberal policies) is being rapidly displaced by a return to the older aid orthodoxy of security, foreign policy priorities, modernisation, infrastructure and growth, led by the private sector. Whether this will achieve inclusive or ecologically sustainable development is a troubling question. Whether we're talking about the UK or Uganda, there is a critical distinction between 'economic growth' and 'development'.

AP Yes is the short answer. Having closely followed aid and reconstruction practice in Afghanistan over the last decade, which has been more of a case of ‘do as we say and not as we did’, it’s clear that the liberal model of state building is bankrupt. We have been inept in seeking to transplant it and it does not work. The rise of development as business and the attempts to practice institutional ‘mono-cropping’ with stylised western models – for example imposing a universalised model of good governance – has to be resisted.

AR Yes, we need to be rethinking—and remembering, and evaluating and learning. Recent work by CAFOD and Participate has stressed the importance of including poor communities in the consultation on what goals should replace the MDGs. Participatory methods that position the poor as key stakeholders in development are wonderful—and  development workers have been using them for years, with a lot of success. But there is a danger that concepts and methods, even ones that work, ebb in and out of fashion. We need to keep talking to one another, sharing ideas and resources, challenging one another, and holding each other, ourselves and our organisations accountable for maximising our impact.

  Is military aid or intervention justified when civilian lives are at risk?
EM The original formulation of the UN initiative known as 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P) was quite sensible - military solutions are justified only if all other possibilities are exhausted or impossible, and if the benefits will outweigh the costs. This demands a steady case-by-case assessment. Unfortunately, the R2P principles have been grossly abused by the USA and its allies and, in practice, interventions have often shown spectacular ignorance - Afghanistan says it all. Hubris and hypocrisy have thoroughly tainted R2P.

AP In principle, yes - but the ‘mission creep’ (the expansion of a project beyond its original goals) that has been seen in Afghanistan and in other countries where military intervention linked to securitisation has become intertwined with development practice has been deeply corrupting. Keep military intervention solely for the protection of lives and nothing more.

AR I think most people would say that, when there is no other recourse, military aid and intervention are justifiable to protect civilian lives and stop gross abuses of human rights. But we need to reduce the number of situations in which there is no other recourse than military action. There’s a need to dedicate a lot more resources and media attention to the on-going efforts to prevent, and recover from, violent conflict and human rights abuses. In April, when the UN passed a historic Arms Trade Treaty, it barely hit the news. We also need to empower women, and other marginalised groups, to be part of the peace-building and negotiation process. Reducing inequality and injustice is the best prevention for conflict.

  How are the politics of aid shifting?
EM Many Gulf and 'Third World' countries have been development partners/aid donors for decades, but have been widely (and mistakenly) overlooked or seen as insignificant. Their growing share of the global economy and rising political power has led to revolutionary shifts in the politics of aid. The 'rising powers' are now starting to have a much greater voice in global development institutions and agencies, and shifting mainstream development norms and practices. This brings opportunities and challenges, for sure, but the overall direction is positive for growth, to some extent for 'development', but big questions remain over human rights and sustainability.

AP The politics are shifting in two ways. For conventional donors, aid is becoming much more strategically aligned with narrowly perceived self-interested political - witness US support to Pakistan - and business interests. The rise of non-western aid donors (such as China) who carry no particular moral baggage, combined with the faltering of western economies, is likely to lead to a decreasing ability of western donors to influence or drive governance or social processes.

AR We are slowly shifting away from the politics of ‘aid’ altogether. More and more, rather than talking about donors and recipients, we’re talking about partnership and two-way learning. Throughout the world, there is a growing realisation that we cannot achieve economic or environmental sustainability without addressing social inequality, the worst manifestation of which is extreme poverty. Even in cases when poverty alleviation is not a moral aim in itself, it will need to be on the local, national and international agendas to enable sustainable development.

Inset image: Air Drop of Humanitarian Aid Delivery to Port au Prince, Haiti by Beverly and Pack via Flickr
Homepage banner image: Delivering food by helicopter for WFP after the Haiti earthquake, March 2010 by UK Department for International Development

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