Posted by: cousindampier | 14 April 2010

Foreign Aid

To say “foreign aid is viewed suspiciously, at best” is no stretch of the truth. Most Americans, when asked how to reign in the deficit, said they would cut foreign aid. (which is ludicrous. See here )

That some shake-up needs to come to the concept of foreign aid is without question, though. The impact is seemingly little, and it breeds a culture of xenophobia and apathy amongst the American people, though the former may just be a natural trait. William Easterly’s blog Aid Watch linked to Owen Barder blog covering the overarching problem in foreign aid: evaluation [not Dave Owens, as I had].

I have the opportunity/poor luck to live and work in Washington, DC. One of the quick tricks to living in this city is the discussions one gets into at a bar on the weeknights. People here care deeply about their topic of choice, and go to great lengths to convince you that their topic is so important, so key to solving all of the world problems, they are astonished you knew so little about it and think otherwise!

Aid organizations seem like this. Owens’ statement:

A few weeks ago, the country heads in Ethiopia of the European aid agencies met to discuss how they could simplify their work. It was triggered by a letter of 4th February 2010 from Stefano Manservisi, the Director General for Development in the EU, to the heads of European aid agencies calling for them to agree a “division of labour” in Ethiopia. Of course, the meeting was an expensive flop: each donor showed up fully briefed to explain why it is essential that they continue to be involved in every sector.* Rather than streamlining their operations, donors have begun to discuss new layers of complexity, such as the designation of “lead” donors, “focal points” and “silent partners”, so that they can continue to operate as now but under the pretence of greater specialisation. This was entirely predictable: the bureaucratic and political need to be involved in many sectors in every country is a far more powerful force than the intangible development benefits of simplification.

This gets to the heart of one of the problems with the incorporation of USAID into the State Department. The only advantage to it I can see is that it doesn’t “divide the force” – Diplomacy and development are under the same head. Yet, that is the basis of the problem. Development is now an equal to defense and diplomacy, in terms of how America interacts with the world. Yet the primary development organization is minuscule, and now it is incorporated into a large organization where it must combat for funds with long-established State Department bureaucracy.

Dr Barnett often speaks of a “Department of Everything Else,” and how Bush wasted an opportunity to create that Department when Homeland Security was conjured up. There is a huge gap between where Defense wants to cease activity, and where Diplomacy begins – this is where development naturally fits (See Dr Barnett’s TED TV presentation here – about 3:45 in, he starts to cover this).

I’m in the camp which thinks this Department should be created (in fact, let’s kill off Homeland Security while we still can). This, in all likelihood, will never happen, and there is always the opportunity to structure it incorrectly – the intelligence network in the United States had twenty-some different departments before DHS, and it has twenty-some departments now…but they share intelligence better.

Raising development to an actual equal partner of diplomacy and defense would go far to improving US capabilities for dealing with the world and potential trouble spots. At the moment, it seems that defense will pick up the slack, while state tries to re-organize itself, and aid agencies bandy about ideas to increase their brand name.



  1. Hello, Thanks for discussing our post on Aid Watch. Just wanted to point out though that the correct name of the economist you are quoting is Owen Barder, not Dave Owens. Best, Laura

    • Well, count me as stupid. Thanks – I’ll fix that!

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