At last people are starting to realise that foreign aid achieves very little

Bob Geldof: a vocal supporter of aid to Africa (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Foreign aid, particularly foreign aid to Africa, is one of the sacred cows of modern politics. The Conservative party made a point of ring-fencing the aid budget in its manifesto, and this is one area which will remain immune from cuts, unless something changes dramatically. But just before you think that this is a good thing, it might be an idea to listen to what some people think of the effects of foreign aid. Take James Shikwati, for example, a Kenyan who actually lives in Africa and who perhaps has more hands-on experience of Africa and the effects of aid than most. His views are robustly expressed in this interview from 2005; but as far as I can see, there is nothing that has happened in the last six years that might have made Shikwati change his mind. Nor is he a lone voice in criticising the negative effects of much aid to Africa. There is also Dr Dambisa Moyo, from Zambia, whose qualifications to speak on this subject are impressive, if a doctorate from Oxford can be calculated to cut any ice. Does our Coalition Government listen to them? Presumably the Department for International Development has a host of special advisers, but who they are is not revealed on their website, unless their names are tucked away somewhere that the casual browser cannot find them.

Aid has been big business since the 1960s, but despite the huge transfer of funds from Europe and North America to Africa, it is hard to point to much that this aid has achieved. Some countries, like China, have lifted millions out of poverty without receiving foreign aid. But any hint that aid to Africa is counter-productive tends to be met with howls of rage. I lived and worked in Africa for four years and saw many aid projects at first hand: the swimming pools built with foreign cash for a people that on the whole dislike swimming; the tarmac roads that existed only on paper; the student hostels that no student wanted to live in, and all the other projects that Italians call cattedrali nel deserto (“cathedrals in the desert”). I also saw the local fat cats, known as wabenzi (named after their favoured mode of transport, the Mercedes Benz), and knew, along with everyone else, who was paying for their lavish lifestyle.

The good news is that the tide may be turning, at last. There is a growing realisation that government to government aid is not the way forward, particularly when this aid simply gives power and patronage to corrupt regimes, regimes that are the causes of poverty rather than part of the solution.

From the Catholic point of view – and historically Catholics have been at the forefront of aid projects – there is now renewed emphasis on governance issues, which is welcome. For an excellent book on this subject one could not do better than to read what Professor Philip Booth, a frequent contributor to this paper, has to say. He has written a short, incisive and clearly expressed book on the matter. Everyone should read his exposition, which is a mere 62 pages, and which sheds light on to what is quite a complex subject. It is particularly good on how the question of foreign aid ties in with our obligation of love of our neighbour. The professor’s take on this subject is moderate and reasoned throughout, and his criticism of state-sponsored government to government aid strikes me as irrefutable. I will write some more about what he says later.