In a recent interview with the UK’s Guardian, U2 frontman Bono and Jeffrey Sachs discuss the politics and economics of aid. The current political and economic climate in the US and Europe has turned very much against foreign aid. In the US, it’s become a target for elimination as the budget is being revised. Bono describes what he calls “something a bit funky about aid as it stands right now”, and that’s the fact that the two most important people involved in aid – the taxpayer, and the recipient who needs the aid to survive or help his family to survive – are the people who know the least about it.
Most people in the US & UK have no clue what percentage of the national budget goes toward foreign aid. They believe it’s a rather large number, usually between 10 and 50%, when in fact it’s about 1%. People don’t know where the aid is going, how it’s being used, or what is being accomplished with it. This is both the fault of the people and their government. Reliable NGO’s try to make their programs as transparent as possible so that potential donors understand how and where their money is being spent, and how successful the programs have been. The government should be eager to advertise its foreign aid programs, and the results thereof. If people knew how little of their tax money is being spent on maternal health, malaria, and education overseas and that such investments, overtime, typically lead to less violent and more self-reliant countries, they may be willing to take a tax-increase for such programs – or at least leave the programs be. So few taxpayers know that investing in a developing nation’s women and children – providing them with increased opportunities for education and healthcare – will lead to a more secular, healthier, peaceful nation with a smaller population.
If this information were more readily available, it might be easier for people to understand why so often our military-based attempts to help a country have such unsatisfying results. As far as investments go, our military and armed conflicts have a poor return. 9 years in Iraq, and as we leave we find out that we’ve created a power vacuum, poisoned their soil with depleted uranium so that future generations will now suffer terrible birth defects, and accomplished very little for their country or ours.
For aid to have its maximum impact, both sides need to be more engaged from a grassroots level. Taxpayers should be aware of where aid is going, why it’s going there, and what is being achieved with it. This level of involvement on the taxpayer side encourages transparency by the government and recipient organizations, which decreases fraud and increases efficiency. It is also encouraging for those doing the work to know that what they’re doing is being publicized, read, and raising awareness about their field.
Recipients of the aid, especially when it’s in the form of long-term projects, also need to be actively involved. This means have locals and peers teach good sanitation practices. Have a few women be trained as mid-wives and then set them loose to teach other women to be mid-wives. Over and over it’s been proven that local buy-in is essential to any sort of aid being productive and yielding results in the long-term. Listening to those who are in need of assistance and finding out what their real problems are, not just what is perceived as the problem (often times outsiders who don’t understand the native cultures and practices think up a “quick-fix” to what they see as a problem, which can miss the real root of the problem and result in wasted funds and energy), and engaging the locals in solving the problem is the best way to achieve any progress in a developing area. It empowers people to change their situation, gets them involved in their communities, educates them, and sometimes changes a culture.
It is the goal of every aid group and non-profit organization to work themselves out of business. Far from building a culture of dependency, they’re trying to end it, as Bono put it. The more effect aid and assistance is, the easier it is for people to grow beyond it. Good seeds coupled with sustainable farming practices can eventually build a famine-resistant community. A famine-resistant community is less likely to need emergency relief – enough famine-resistant communities and you’ve put a huge dent in the emergency aid “business”. If more tax-payers were educated about the amount and kinds of aid their country contributes to, and what that assistance is capable of achieving in both the short and long term, the more likely they are to encourage this kind of spending.
The US government provides a Foreign Assistance Dashboard to encourage taxpayers to be aware of the who, what, when, wheres, and whys of our foreign aid. It’s a searchable and reasonably easy to use website. I recommend anyone who pays their taxes or is concerned about the national debt and budget to avail themselves of the contents of this website. It is your money – you have a right know where it’s going and what’s being accomplished with it.