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The best and worst of international aid

  • 17 April 2012

Rumours are rife that the Government's projected aid budget increases will be cut in the forthcoming Federal Budget to ensure a surplus. Until now Australia had been on track to achieve its pledged aid target of 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015, a pledge endorsed by Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and, presumably, current Foreign Minister Bob Carr, and which had also received rare bipartisan support from the Coalition.

Aid is not generally a vote winner. There are notable exceptions, such as in those Scandinavian nations where popular support for aid policies has seen them achieve an aid budget of over 0.7 per cent of GNI.

In Australia though aid is not popular, due largely to the many myths surrounding it; a heady mixture of racial prejudice, the afterglow of colonialism and the chipping away at the social justice agenda by neo-cons whose 'trickle down' economics from the rich to the poor was discredited long ago.

Horst Köhler, former head of the IMF, was asked when he was President of Germany if he regretted some of the IMF's policies, such as aggressive structural adjustment to force poor countries to cut social expenditure to pay back debts from loans given too easily by Western banks and governments. His reply was that they had pushed ahead with economic theories without taking into account the effect of those theories on people's lives. Quite.

Of course, some aid doesn't work. I was horrified as a young aid worker in the '80s being told that an open sewer in an Addis Ababa slum was a World Bank project. The 'donors' did not consult the local community, let alone allow them to participate in the design to bring sanitation to the slum. Never admitting failure when logistical difficulties arose, they returned to their hotels and no doubt the next 'aid' project.

That is the big lesson for successful aid projects — the participation of the local community is vital. They should not be the 'beneficiaries' but rather, in the words of Nobel-prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, should be the 'doers and judges' of any aid project.

One of the simplest and most successful aid projects I was involved in was with a group of women in Kenya. They had been abandoned by their husbands and had taken to prostitution to feed their children. Through Freirean methodologies, a