"World leaders warned that approach to African aid needs a total rethink
As key summit on Millennium Development Goals begins, experts cast doubt
on conventional approach to poverty reduction
By Daniel Howden, Africa Correspondent
Monday, 20 September 2010
As world leaders gather in New York today to decide the future of aid,
an influential new lobby has emerged calling for a total rethink of
foreign assistance. At the end of a decade dominated by slogans such as
"Make Poverty History", in which development has been defined by a
series of sweeping targets – known as the Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs) – experts are warning heads of state at the global poverty summit
not to sign up blindly to more of the same.
A draft declaration being circulated by the UN deplores the lack of
progress and calls for "redoubling of efforts" towards 2015 targets such
as slashing poverty and improving access to education. International
NGOs concerned at "aid fatigue" are demanding a "rescue package" to save
But a third way is being called for by some experts, who warn that
ignoring the shortcomings of the past 10 years in favour of staying the
course risks destroying public faith in aid. "While laudable and
important aspirations, the targets are actually the wrong measures of
development progress," says Phil Vernon from International Alert, a
London-based group calling for a radical rethink of aid. "It is not just
the MDGs which are at fault. Despite some brilliant thinking and actions
within the development sector, the prevailing paradigm has become tired,
confused and is in need of renewal."
The summit marks the 10th anniversary of the Millennium declaration,
signed by 189 countries, which set out eight specific targets aimed at
making a better world by ending extreme poverty. Some progress has been
made, but it is clear those targets will not be met.
The architect of the MDGs, US economist Jeff Sachs, says the blame for
the anti-poverty project being off-track lies in western capitals. "Rich
countries made promises which they didn't follow through on and now
people want to say it was wrong all along," Professor Sachs says. The UN
estimates the gap between funds promised and those delivered is worth
$20bn (£12.8bn) for this year alone, with $16bn of that affecting the
poorest continent, Africa.
The G8 grouping of wealthier economies committed themselves to spend 0.7
percent of GDP on overseas development assistance (ODA) but are lagging
behind on 0.34 percent. Professor Sachs says the targets remain
"realistic and practical" if rich countries would spend less on their
military and more on development.
But leading aid sceptic Professor Bill Easterly says the goals were a
successful fundraising exercise which then squandered much of the money
meant for the poorer world. "Why waste any more efforts on the MDGs?"
Professor Easterly asked recently. "[They] will go down in history as a
success in global consciousness-raising, but a failure in using that
consciousness for its stated objectives."
Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion and professor of economics at
Oxford University, says both left- and right-wingers have exaggerated
the importance of aid. "Aid is not transformational by itself in either
a good or a bad way. It's not that if only we had a lot more aid we'd
transform Africa." The age of slogans such as "End Poverty Now" is over,
he says. "We have moved beyond that and we have got to recognise
The Overseas Development Institute, the UK's leading think-tank on aid,
says that the millennium goals should be judged on relative progress,
rather than absolute failure. " The problem with the MDGs was that they
were agreed as ends but then confused with means," says the ODI's Claire
Melamed. "They were a political bargain, not a blueprint for development
but that's how they have been misused."
Despite concerns over international strategy, senior UN officials and
anti-poverty campaigners will put the EU delegation under severe
pressure to make good its funding promises and take moral leadership of
the aid project. There is a broad understanding of the failings of
efforts so far but many governments and aid agencies would rather "hold
their nose", as one official put it, and get to the end of the target
period rather than risk a rethink now.
But the consensus that the MDGs are the only show in town is being
questioned, with some analysts suggesting that this approach could hurt
any remaining public trust in the aid industry.
While the West's broken promises are coming across loudest, there are
voices calling for better-quality aid, and the need for non-aid
approaches, including reducing trade barriers, International Alert said
in a pre-summit report. "There is no simple correlation between the
volume of aid and its impact," Mr Vernon says. "Failing to meet the
goals should not be interpreted to mean we should spend more money in
the same way. People were told a story in which if they opened their
chequebooks they would end poverty. But ending poverty is as much about
politics as about getting children into school."
Unless a more honest story is told, which admits that the targets set 10
years ago were too narrow, it is argued, there could be a huge backlash
from people who feel misled. A failure to get this right now could mean
that instead of ending extreme poverty, present efforts destroy the
compact between taxpayers in the rich world and the development
community and make aid history."