Monday, January 15, 2007

Foreign aid - more harmful than good?

I've just seen an interesting piece in yesterday's Observer reporting new research by a group called Tiri. Tiri claims that much of western aid sent to rebuild wartorn countries in fact breeds political instability and violence. The report highlights the situation in Afghanistan, saying that western countries' determination to back Hamid Karzai's government is completely counterproductive, since the Afghan government is widely and correctly perceived by the Afghans to be corrupt, fuelling support for the Taliban.

At a debate organised by Intelligence Squared before Christmas I witnessed a scepticism about benefits of government aid that surprised me, although I tend to share it. Speaking for the motion, that 'foreign aid to poor countries has done more harm than good', were the former Reuters correspondent Aidan Hartley and an American named David Rieff, who I had not heard of before but who presented his case in a wonderfully laconic style. Speaking from his own experience in Kenya, Hartley suggested that aid frequently finds its way into buying more Mercedes for Africa's corrupt rulers. The star against these two was Rory Stewart, who asked the audience to imagine what the world might be like if all aid was stopped altogether. As a piece of oratory, Stewart's speech was the most brilliant. Yet the audience voted narrowly against him.

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