Foreign aid is a subject that rather sharply divides people; in 2013, the Conservative-led coalition in the UK committed the government, in statute, to spend 0.7% of British GNI (gross national income) on foreign aid. This caused some consternation amongst a significant part of the population; some on the right felt that this was too much, whilst some on the left said the percentage should be higher. Others – myself included, I must confess – were glad that a commitment like this had been made for the first time.
But is this right? Was I right to support the 0.7% commitment? Is it a commitment that’s actually working? Well, I want to try and examine the whole issue of foreign aid in enough of a balanced way that I can try and understand what people on both sides of the fence are actually thinking, and why they’re thinking they’re right.
Simply put, foreign aid is the act performed by a country or international organisation to help other countries in terms of supplying goods, services, and monetary aid. This can be in the form of military assistance, medical aid, food, training, or services. This can also be given as a form of loan. Moreover, purposes can vary from fighting poverty to promoting development. Normally, developed countries help developing and under-developed countries.
The earliest foreign aid given to other countries can be dated back to wars between countries, in the form of military aid. Powerful countries helped war-stricken countries at times of turmoil and chaos. The U.S. is one nation which has been active in sending military troops as allies to invaded territories in Asia and in other parts of the world for many years. Nowadays, aid given has transcended to other types of support.
What are the benefits of foreign aid? Well, there are four main positive that I can think of.
1. It can help ease poverty in poor countries.
Supporters of foreign aid posit that if rich countries work hand in hand to help developing and poverty-stricken countries, this can help solve the problem of impoverished nations. With millions of families living below poverty lines, contributing in any way through money, training, and medical assistance can better the lives of other people.
2. It is beneficial to involved countries, the donor and recipient.
Giving foreign aid is between two nations and this humanitarian activity is not only a good thing for the country receiving help but also to the giver of financial aid. By helping another country, diplomatic relations will be nurtured. By showing its appreciation, the country which was given aid in any form will be open to help the richer country in times of need, be it in military services or letting the host country station its base in their country. This will be strategic for the former in times of war.
3. Extending foreign aid will help other countries be more independent.
Advocates say that by helping poor countries – by giving them financial assistance, helping them in times of natural disasters, and providing medical help like vaccines for diseases – a time will come when these countries will be able to improve their economies. Moreover, with eradicating diseases such as polio, there will be more competent citizens and aid their economies as well. Eventually, these countries will not be needing aid anymore but instead, be the ones to pay it forward like Peru, Japan and China.
4. It can help other nations fight drugs and other problems like HIV/AIDS.
Many organizations are helping in the dissemination of information about transnational problems like drugs and HIV. The International Narcotics Control program sets aside funds to help fight drug problems in other countries.
That’s all very well, I hear you say, but what about the flip side? What about the negatives to foreign aid?
1. Foreign aid does not go to the people because of corruption.
Opponents argue that, in most cases, help fails to reach the people who are in need of assistance. There are poor countries with corrupt officials who use the funds for themselves, and that little or no aid is given to the poorest members of the communities. They also say that this can even stir and encourage corruption in these countries.
2. Favoring selected countries over other can be a problem.
Critics of foreign aid say that oftentimes, developing countries which can give back benefits are the ones given assistance instead of nations which really need help. They also argue that some countries who give aid use this as a tool to control the recipient country; setting up military bases as a quid pro quo, for example, which leave the poor country no choice.
3. Giving financial aid like loans only leave these poor countries deeper in debt and poverty.
It’s argued that the IMF can sometimes be reckless in approving loans for programmes that are not really beneficial to the recipient country but, instead, are more harmful. They also point out that these countries become poorer because ,instead of using their funds to invest in profitable projects and channel their income to other investments, they use what they have to pay their debts.
4. Foreign aid is wasteful.
Instead of using the fund to improve the lives American people, a big chunk of the money goes to other countries which, sometimes, do not deserve to be helped. It’s argued that first world countries have been extending aid for a long time, and and yet most of these nations still live in poverty.
Theresa May has said that Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on foreign aid spending “will remain”, amid concerted pressure from right-wing ministers and newspapers to cut the aid budget. In a departure from her predecessor’s tone, she has added, however, that “What we need to do though is to look at how that money is spent.”
I fully admit to being in favour of foreign aid, and I make no secret – or apology – of that fact. If you saw people that were in need, wouldn’t you want to help them? Would it really matter if those people lived in the street as you or in the next city. To an extent, all countries should be willing to help each other with major problems. In the end, it is not just the country you are helping, but human beings.
But … I struggle to find a convincing counter-attack on a couple of points and I find myself getting frustrated at not being fully able to defend something that I truly believe in. The two arguments that are always made really make me think hard about the answer are; new-rich nations still receive money from us – countries that can afford space programmes such as China and India received foreign aid money from the UK in the past twelve months, and for long before that. Secondly, foreign aid often doesn’t get beyond the corrupt governments and plutocrats in charge of the most failing, long-term ailing countries.
Those are two very good points that we simply mustn’t ignore; they are key to resolving an important barrier to the effective distribution of our foreign aid. We shouldn’t be spending money where rich nations should be – but aren’t – distributing their own income to people who matter; when they can afford, we should be using our resources to convince them that it’s a better source for their own income to deliver social programmes that helps people out of poverty. We should care, but we shouldn’t be taken for granted.
On the second point – that the money and services we provide to some nations goes straight to the hands of the rich rulers and their hangers-on rather than the people – often literally) in the streets who are starving. Yes, this happens … a lot, and the fact that I hope their souls / spirits / consciousnesses burn in the fiery pits of torment for lording it over their dying countrymen is one issue – the more important issue that that people are dying. We need to find a solution that bypasses the corrupt warlords and despots and gets it to the people that matter, the people who care very little for the golden palaces their rulers live in and care far more about where their next meal is coming from.
We should be ashamed of our country’s complicit history in supporting these tyrants, and we need to figure out a new way of providing the funding. I say “we” because it should be a collective effort, although I haven’t got a clue what the solution is; I literally have no clue. If anyone does have a clue, then for heaven’s sake, why are you reading this article? Go and tell someone about it; not me, because I’ve got less power than a crumbled-up peanut on the pavement, but you get my meaning, I hope.
We can’t stop giving money to people who need it; we need to change the way we deliver aid. If my neighbours are starving, then I would help him. If the person in the next street was starving, I would help her. The same goes for the person in the next town, the next city, the next county … the next country. Help doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; why should it? Why should it? What is so fundamentally different about the person in the other country? They are starving. They could be dying. That’s not a woolly, empty-headed lefty-argument – that’s just me trying to be a decent human being.
When did the argument change so dramatically? When did we change the discussion from “Who needs our help?” to “Who deserves our help?” I don’t know, but I don’t like the change. Yes, we must guard against being taken advantage of, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference in other ways; where countries can afford to feed their citizens, then why don’t we work on convincing them that this is a more useful way of spending their budgets? When corruption blocks our services from getting through, and keeps people locked into a cycle of despondency and despair, why aren’t we angry about that, not about the fact that human beings are dying and that we can afford to do something about it – and perhaps even have the clout, along with other first world nations, to effect change in their brutal, horrible regimes.
Giving financial aid to despondent nations is a humanitarian gesture and promises several benefits. It’s something that is morally right and courageous to do. However, critics are also correct in saying there are loopholes in the system. The best way to address this is to come up with a structural design to ensure aid is given to the right recipients and that it is properly implemented, with utmost focus on corruption. What that looks like, I have no idea, but I don’t want to be part of a society that can turn away from people who are dying and say, “That’s not my country, that’s not my problem.” We need to be dealing with the systemic failures of successive governments around the world to deal with corruption, as well as remembering that we’re all human beings.