Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"World leaders warned that approach to African aid needs a total rethink

"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

the goals.

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."

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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."

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