St Bob, does he really know best?

There’s a great article in the Independent today by the very thoughtful Ian Birrell about the state of Africa and how lots of the aid in the continent hurts rather than helps.

He lays into Bob Geldof a bit (another super-rich, large-scale tax avoider like Bono who, with no hint of irony or self-awareness, complains that western governments are not taking more ordinary taxpayers money by force to fund an engorgement of ‘aid’ packages to the third world):

His [Geldof’s] British homes were found to be registered in offshore companies, a popular measure with the super-rich costing the hard-pressed British exchequer £1bn a year. And his non-domicile status ensures he avoids paying tax on any overseas earnings, which must be nice.

But it’s not just the hypocrisy. Birrell is pleased St. Bob is finally coming around to the idea that trade and the free market helps elevate poverty better than anything else, but if only Mr. Geldof could see and recognise the harm that the government-enforced aid has done to so many in Africa:

Western politicians of all hues, desperate to look sensitive and caring, cravenly pandered to this aid lobby led by Bob and Bono, while journalists put on kid gloves when engaging with it, ignoring practices that would provoke outrage elsewhere. As a result, global aid spending soared from £50bn a year to £83bn over the first decade of this century; today 595,000 people work in a fiercely-competitive industry.

A study last year found even among these aid workers only about one-third thought their projects worked. In private, many will admit to grave doubts. You could fill this entire newspaper with examples of how the flood of money washes down the drain: a report by two health economists, for example, found nearly two-thirds of health aid in Africa is diverted. The waste, the ineptitude, the tolerance of corruption, the support for repression, the furthering of inequality, the boosting of arms spending is utterly scandalous…all those new colonialists riding around in their big white jeeps telling the locals what is good for them.

“They don’t consult with us,” complained a minister in Somalia, latest recipient of massive British aid. “It’s like a doctor trying to prescribe medicine for a patient you haven’t seen yet.”

This distorts priorities of recipient nations. It leads to the creation of pointless bureaucracy – one study found a typical African country must churn out 10,000 aid reports each year. Additionally, while our government attacks welfare dependency at home, it encourages it abroad with unquestioning support for politicians who have no need to bother responding to the needs of their own citizens.

Imagine how we would feel if armies of Africans came and told us how to run our schools and hospitals (while living in some of the smartest homes)? Or funded politicians who steal and murder? But this is our approach abroad: we know best, our voices count. This is how Britain ended up funding a regime that sent a hit squad to this country to kill people. And how it spent £1bn supporting education in just three east African countries but failed to check whether the teachers turned up or the children were learning; sadly, they were not.

The truth is often counter intuitive. Having our governments take more of our money by force and spend it on aid programs should help so many in Africa and elsewhere. But the reality is that simply stepping back and letting freedom reign does the job far better.

 

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