Does development assistance have a future?

No one unequivocally and wholeheartedly said development assistance worked at the debate on whether it had a future. Instead, all three panel speakers saw the need for a radical change in approach and priorities, and shared with the audience different visions for how that model could be changed or overhauled.

Close up picture of a baby's foot.

“What is aid for?” asked Alex Scrivener from the World Development Movement. This was the key question, said Scrivener, who was “sick” of people debating how much aid should be given, whether it be 0.7% of Gross National Product, or more or less. Is it a philanthropic process or a tool for social justice? Make it the latter, he urged, and it will have a powerful impact and be embraced with greater enthusiasm.

While there was a lot wrong with aid, he said, it has had its successes – mortality rates of infants and children (under five) had dropped by more than a third from 88 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 57 in 2010.

But, I wondered, is that the best we can do after decades of aid assistance? While 12,000 more children’s lives are now saved each day, 21,000 still die from preventable causes, and Millennium Development Goal 4, which calls for a two-thirds reduction in the mortality rates of children under five, has yet to be met.   

David Satterthwaite, a Senior Fellow with IIED’s Human Settlements Group, pointed out a key problem with the aid system: its lack of accountability to its recipients. Development assistance is legitimated on the basis of poor people’s needs, yet intermediaries carrying out projects in an urban ‘slum’ aren’t accountable to the poor, but to their donors. 

Satterthwaite identified two critical actors in urban development: grassroots organisations and local government authorities. Reducing urban poverty involved changing the relationship between the organisations set up by the urban poor and their governments, and assistance could potentially support the development of that relationship. But for that to happen, development assistance had to take the call for “accountability and transparency seriously” and support the urban poor’s capacity and agency. 

“If you want everyone to live on an income of US$3.00 a day – you would need the resource equivalent of 15 planets,” said Andrew Simms, author of Ecological Debt and fellow at the new economics foundation. Given that we only have one Earth, what kind of development model can “square the circle of lifting people out of poverty, improving people’s livelihoods and solving energy security and climate change?” Simms asked.

For him, the answers to tackling poverty in a “climate-constrained world” lie in building the “foundations of a green energy revolution.” The problem of access to energy and poverty could be solved through a new development compact, or a “global green new deal” in which “rural regeneration and economic development is built on the foundations of a diverse range of renewable energy.” He sees this process developing the skills and capacity of those populations, which could in turn fuel economies in a green and sustainable way.

Tackling inequality was also crucial. “Equality makes other problems much easier to solve and reduces the number of ills faced by a society,” he said referring to the groundbreaking work of epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson who wrote The Spirit Level. “In an unequal world it’s much harder to lift people out of poverty – in an unequal world you have the paradox whereby to get smaller amounts of poverty reduction requires ever more overconsumption by the consumer, so inequality makes everything else harder to achieve” said Simms.  

When Camilla Toulmin, Director of IIED, asked the audience to vote for or against aid assistance, most voted for it – albeit reluctantly, judging from some of the faces.

It seems most don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but, at present, the baby is getting wrinkly and tired (and might even need to be put to bed).

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