Aid and Other Dirty Business

Written 15 September

I finished this a couple of weeks ago and as I found it pretty thought provoking thought I’d set down a few thoughts. The title is somewhat misleading: the book is by no means an anti-Aid screed but does describe well how Aid sometimes comes up short. It also sets out a realistic vision for what a more effective system of International Aid would look like.

Giles Bolton is obviously a bright and highly motivated chap and wrote this in the mid-noughties following stints with DfID in Rwanda and Iraq. He comes across very much as an Africa Man, and his affection for the place shines through. I’m much more familiar with North Africa and the Middle East but his time in Iraq is not really dwelt on. Some Googling reveals that he left the world of Aid some years ago and is now Tesco’s Responsible Sourcing Director, and this makes sense given the conclusions that he draws the reader to.

The book is divided into five sections covering

  1. the situation Africa is in now
  2. sources of Aid (from independent charities, from national governments and from international oranisations like the UN, World Bank etc) and their different characteristics
  3. trade
  4. globalisation, and
  5. how things might change

Bolton adopts a very easy going and conversational style which makes the book easy to read. He also uses lots of thought experiments with the reader being set up as the newly installed President of a median African country. This is a great mechanism for setting out quickly the issues confronting African politicians and Aid professionals as well as bringing home to the reader that there are no easy solutions, everything is a trade off between myriad competing interests, and all that can be done can only be done imperfectly. He doesn’t just dwell on governments and international aid workers either, he uses particular and personal examples of real people to make his points.

I wrote here about my experiences with the Aid system I saw and worked peripherally with in Egypt, and it’s obvious that Rwanda and Sub-Saharan Africa are very difficult environments. Nevertheless, I could recognise much that was familiar and agree with a lot of the conclusions that Bolton comes to. The USAID programme in Egypt was channeled largely through the Egyptian Government and this is a mechanism that Bolton broadly favours. He argues persuasively that Aid is essential, good programmes can be really good, but also that far too much money is wasted on programmes that are ineffective, short term, designed to keep national donors or charities happy but really don’t deliver sustainable gains.

Bolton’s model of good development is that programmes must be designed by recipient countries (they increasingly are) with funding more from international organisations as they are less liable to home country politics (in the case of national donors) and are much more efficient than small charities (“buying a goat”). Money should be channeled from national governments to UN programmes which then put money through recipient countries’ governments in order that recipients improve their institutions and manage broader programmes (there’s no point building clinics without thinking how you train more nurses). This design must be accompanied by a long term commitment and also being clear eyed that some funds will be lost to corruption within the recipient country and its government.

He is dismissive of smaller charities; some large international charities are highly effective and play an important role but he dismisses “buying a goat”, “setting up a clinic” type projects as being far too stand alone and doomed to failure as they lack breadth. Fewer, but bigger charities are definitely more.

On trade, I am very much on board with his argument that consumers in rich countries are immensely powerful and can bring real pressure to bear on businesses to up their game on sourcing responsibly and playing fair on international trade. Subsidies for farmers, tariffs and non-tariff barriers all come in for the treatment. The hurdles that African countries have to clear to get even the tiniest access to rich markets are well laid out, as are the rules that keep their economies based on growing but not processing (e.g. coffee) while fighting dumping by rich countries.

Bolton marshalls really good arguments and examples to support his conclusions and to be honest I don’t really disagree in principle. However, it’s got to be said that the book does rather show its age. I mentioned at the top that the book was written in the mid-noughties (my edition was published in 2008). Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Bono and Bob Geldof had just put on Live 8 to argue for higher aid spending targets, migration was only just beginning to become an issue, Lehman Brothers were still in business, the West was still ascendant and knew it was rich and people weren’t angry. That’s a long time ago, and it does present something of a problem: Bolton writes with almost unbounded optimism about the upsides of globalization, a view that was much easier to sustain in 2005 than in 2021 now that the process of (partial and selective) opening of markets and removal of borders seems to have paused and looks likely to reverse.

While I can understand that in terms of aid effectiveness it would be best for donors to give money to the UN and leave it to them to distribute as they see fit, national programmes aren’t going to disappear any time soon and will be subject to domestic political pressures. Smaller charities aren’t going to stop activities to buy goats, build clinics and buy mosquito nets and just fold themselves into the big boys of International Aid. In some ways I think this is quite right: national governments are answerable to taxpayers in a way that the UN isn’t, and I personally prefer voluntary giving to being taxed.

I suspect another important difference to the mid-noughties is the rise of the mega-philanthropist. Bill Gates is the most obvious example but over the next few years multi-bilionaire altruism could come to be a more significant player than national governments. Gates himself has spent a lot of time trying to persuade his fellow billionaire oligarchs and monopolists to pledge most of their wealth to good causes when they die (his foundation will pick up a few tens of billions when Warren Buffet falls off his perch). In one way this could really play into the model that Bolton favours, but with the Gates Foundation taking the place of the UN as a committed organisation with an international outlook and real heft. But I am a little sceptical that these people will put their wealth and life’s work under effective international control without insisting on a key role for themselves or their heirs. You don’t get to be a multi-billionaire by letting people just do what they like with your assets. In some ways this could be a good thing; multi-billionaires are much more likely to insist on high standards of management, may be less political and more likely to pull the plug on poor performing programmes if they don’t like what they see. But some of them are likely to be dangerous monomaniacs with crankish ideas and could do enormous harm. We could also see big foundations with conflicting aims making a real mess of things.

Anyway, I expect to read more books on aid and trade, but this is a good one and a very good and fair introduction to a complex subject.

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