Monday, July 13, 2009

Democratized Foreign Aid Plan Not Everything It's Cracked Up To Be

British Tory policy could founder on lack of public awareness

As countries around the world continue to search for newer, more innovative solutions to the puzzle posed by poverty in the developing world, David Cameron and Britain's Conservative party have come up with what seems like a novel solution:

Let the people decide.

The British people, that is.

In the proposed project, British citizens would be granted the opportunity to vote on foreign aid projects. 40 million Pounds Sterling would be placed into a "My Aid" fund, which may or may not be increased to match the amounts raised by private donors.

The plan would then establish a website and outline the projects being considered, their history, and their successes. British citizens would then receive the opportunity to vote on those projects and be continually updated on their choice via email.

War on Want director John Hilary has denounced the proposal as pandering to "popular gimmickry".

"It is important to recognise that these are serious and complex issues and what may seem like a good thing to the public may be completely hopeless in reality," Hilary added.

John Hilary seems to be an acolyte of Jeffrey Sachs' aid model, wherein aid decisions are decided and administered through a collection of centrally-planned intergovernmental agencies. IGOs have relied to an unfortunate extent on the participation and cooperation of corrupt local governmental agencies that have led to the squandering or outright theft of billions of dollars in foreign aid.

This general state of affairs has led to what economist William Easterly has termed the "second tragedy of poverty" -- that those living in impoverished countries continue to suffer despite the trillions of dollars spent to alleviate their suffering.

While Hilary's subscription to this failed perspective on aid policy is rather unfortunate, his point in regard to aid policy is actually spot-on.

Foreign aid is actually an extremely difficult topic that requires a great deal of expertise to make good decisions. To give ordinary citizens -- a term that shouldn't be seen as derisive, but merely descriptive -- decisive say over aid projects may be sadly overestimating their ability to unravel the complex issues surrounding aid policy.

What should one honestly expect the man on the street to know about police reform in Jamaica? The Ethiopian social security system? Post-civil war diplomacy in Sierra Leone?

The answer, more often than not, will be "not much". Most voters would likely be able to find a project they like the sound of, but do they know whether or not some of these projects can be successful? Do they know enough about the political or social climate in the country in question? Do they know enough about the agencies involved?

The move to democratize decisions regarding the projects selected for foreign aid is a novel one. But it may be democratizing the wrong side of the aid decision -- or at least not significantly democratizing the business end of the decision.

As Dambisa Moyo points out, many African countries hold elections and purport to be democracies, but don't fully fit the bill of a developed multi-party democracy.

William Easterly would add that most African countries lack the basic democratic institutions that manage and regulate an economy -- such institutions such as banks, courts, or offices to register the ownership of property. He would further add that the decisions made by central aid planners have seldom met the specific needs of those at whom the aid in question is actually directed.

To put decision-making power in the hands of British citizens only further removes that decision-making power from the hands who need it most -- at least so far as British aid policy is concerned. Naturally, one could argue that British citizens should have the right to make decisions regarding where their tax dollars are spent, and this argument does have merit.

But as Moyo would argue, the continual casting of western aid agencies strips local democracies -- as they were -- of their legitimacy in the eyes of their own citizens.

Giving ordinary Africans more power to control the aid programs administered in Africa through micro-economic techniques would actually strengthen their sense of democracy, and in time could strengthen their individual democracies.

If British citizens were to agree that it's in their best interests to deal with mature democracies in Africa, they may also agree that it's in their best interests to allow experts to control British aid policy in such a way that fosters such democratic growth.

Naturally, those experts should be obligated to administer these policies in a way that isn't out of touch with the expectations of British citizens and with the needs of African citizens.

But David Cameron's plan actually guarantees neither of these things. His plan really isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

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