Somewhat strangely for a 21st century world, where people are more aware than ever of the suffering faced by their fellow human beings, criticisms of international aid are numerous, frequent and come from all sides of the political spectrum.
There are those who complain that public money should be spent “at home”, constantly questioning why developed states should be helping the developing world, when they themselves are facing fiscal belt-tightening and often hard hitting cutbacks.
Of course the people levelling such arguments conveniently disregard the fact that the UN Millennium Development Project asks rich states to dedicate just 0.7% of their GDP to fighting international poverty and that the actual average given is far lower. They also overlook cataclysmic gulf between the nature and scale of poverty in states that give aid and states that receive it. Of course domestic poverty should never be ignored or belittled, especially when it comes to critical issues such as rising home repossessions, cuts to disability allowances and malnutrition; but neither should these issues distract from the even more staggering facts that one in eight people do not have access to clean water, one billion do not have enough to eat and nearly nine million children do not live to their fifth birthday. The “charity begins at home” lobby’s perverse opposition to developed states spending even one hundredth of their GDP on such issues, risks bordering on inhumanity and racism.
Somewhat more rational – though still often fallible arguments hinge on the premise that it is the current distribution of international aid which is wrong, particularly when it comes to states such as India with its rapidly increasing GDP, nuclear weapons and space programme. Again, those making such cases generally overlook the bigger picture: that in India and other states like it, millions still face crippling poverty and starvation. They should not be neglected by developed states because of their government’s misappropriation of funds to weapons or space research, any more than those in Burma, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka should be denied aid because of their governments squandering of national finance on internal oppression.
The increasingly vocal (though still distinctly minority) school of thought that aid does not work at all presents more nuanced arguments around the potential of assistance programmes to prevent market-based economic development, encourage corruption and create a culture of dependence. However, these too face severe criticism of being grounded in specific anecdotal cases rather than a thorough global overview, placing too much emphasis on the free market and running contrary to the expertise of the majority of those involved in the field.
Still- despite their flaws, all of these positions must be noted, addressed and discussed. Only through respecting and analysing all points of view can we dispel cynicism over international aid and improve the systems which, whilst essential, no one suggests are anywhere near perfect. Debate over the nature, effects and basis of international aid are certainly necessary.
But not now.
Because right now the Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in six decades; the water sources have dried up, the refugee camps have filled up, the cattle have died, the crops have withered, eleven million people across four states are in need of urgent food and children arriving into the UN’s care are already so weak that they are dying within 24 hours. Many families are now choosing whether to eat or drink, many more have no choice, many others never will – ever again. Hundreds of thousands have crossed borders, political instability will certainly ensue- the only variable is how bad it will be and how much it will affect the aid effort.
This is not the time to debate international aid. This is the time to dig deep, donate to the charities and intergovernmental agencies on the ground and support the practical work they are doing in providing water, food and medicine to a people who are no longer on the brink of disaster – but in the midst of one.