The development policy debate focuses too much on aid. Aid policies may help to improve the living conditions of people in developing countries, but it is development policies that will result in lasting transformation. If we are serious about promoting long-term change, we should talk less about aid, and more about the other rich-world policies and behaviours that affect developing countries.
Rich countries have many reasons for wanting to help poor countries. The main three British political parties speak in their manifestos of Britain’s obligations to the developing world (Lib Dems); moral duty, common interest and poverty emergency (Lab); and enlightened self interest and commitment (Cons). The combination of motives – moral concern for others and self-interest – is a strength of the development cause, not a handicap.
These motives translate into two broad classes of objectives for development policy:
- One view is that development assistance should help to accelerate economic and institutional change in developing countries. The idea is that temporary support from outside can be a catalyst for permanent changes in developing countries. As economic growth takes off, developing countries will no longer need our help. This view is attractive both to donors, who do not want to go on giving aid for ever, and for recipient countries who do not want to continue to be aid dependent. For shorthand we will call this the transformation objective of development assistance.
- Another view is that development assistance can improve people’s lives today. This is most obvious in the case of humanitarian relief, for which the objective is to provide food and shelter; but more generally a lot of aid is used to send children to school or provide basic health care. On this view, the development process is long and hard, and one role for outsiders is to enable people to live better lives while this process is happening in their country. Let’s call this the solidarity objective of development assistance.
It is entirely reasonable for countries, organizations and individuals to care deeply about both the transformation and the solidarity objective, and they can coherently pursue both objectives at the same time.
From time to time, people try to make connections between these objectives, positive and negative.
The claim of a positive connection is the idea that spending money on health and education is an investment in the human capital of a country, and that this will, in time, lead to faster economic growth. Some point to significant investments in education in fast-growing Asian economies as evidence that education spending will promote growth. Others say that improving health will lead to a demographic transition, in which falling infant mortality leads to smaller family sizes and greater investment in each child. Both of these stories are appealing, though unfortunately neither is very well supported by the evidence.
The possibility of a negative connection is that the things that donors do to support people in developing countries as a matter of solidarity may actually slow down the political, social, institutional and economic changes that the country needs for transformation. It may sustain unaccountable governments in power; undermine the social contract between citizen and state; hollow out fragile government institutions; cause appreciation of the real exchange rate and so choke off exports; or create a culture of dependency that dims demand for social change. Again, the empirical evidence for these (quite plausible) ideas is pretty thin (pace the claims of Dambisa Moyo).
Are we using the right tools to pursue our two types of objective: tying to catalyze transformation, and at the same time to help people live better lives? I think we are focusing too much on aid and not enough on development policies.
It is quite straightforward to see that aid can help meet solidarity objectives. It is used to provide clean water and food, and to finance public services such as health and education. There is quite good evidence that it is effective, though there is much more to learn about how to do it better.
It is much less clear that aid achieves our transformation objectives. The statistical evidence linking aid to economic growth is, at best, uncertain (see The Anarchy of Numbers by David Roodman). This does not mean that there is no relationship – it is much harder to demonstrate a statistical connection when there are few countries to observe, and so many factors as well as aid that are likely to affect whether a country achieves economic lift-off. We can think of aid being to growth what venture capital is to start-ups: many investments will fail, but the huge benefits from the few that succeed may make the losses worthwhile.
I personally have my doubts that aid makes much difference to the prospects for economic and social transformation. Countries change from within, through long, slow, organic processes, and it is hard to see how money and advice from outside can make much of a difference to that. Consider our own history, and the decades and centuries that it has taken us so far to construct our social and political institutions.
If we are serious about promoting transformation, we need to look beyond aid to how we can change the environment in which developing countries are struggling to change their economic, social and political institutions. Transformation is much likely to take root if we create conditions in which it is likely to succeed.
What are the development policies that might contribute to this?
- Trade policy – As well as duty-free, quote-free access for all developing countries to our markets, we have to dismantle the complex rules – such as rules of origin and phyto-sanitary standards – which make exports complicated.
- Agriculture policy – We have to stop dumping subsidized agricultural over production abroad, especially as our aid conditions prevent developing countries from competing with us. We also have to stop using food aid as a welfare system for European and American farmers.
- Climate change – If anthropogenic global warming is a reality, as is the consensus among scientists, then the harm we are doing to developing countries through climate change will become one of the most important obstacles to development. Probably the most important thing we can do to accelerate development is to stop our own carbon emissions.
- Conflict – We make and sell the guns that are used in conflicts in developing countries. We buy the oil and minerals over which groups are fighting. We sustain the unaccountable leaders in pursuit of our geo-strategic interests. If we were serious about development, we would by now have stopped the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda – it would be a simple matter for a well-resourced army.
- Immigration – In the 18th Century, a third of Europeans moved to America, to the benefit of both continents. In the 20th and 21st century we have introduced historically unprecedented restrictions on the movement of people – notwithstanding our rhetoric about globalization. These restrictions may be the single most important factor which explains why poor countries have not been able to converge on rich countries.
- Intellectual property – Another constraint on the ability of developing countries to close the gap is that there are historically unprecedented constraints on their ability to appropriate technologies. For centuries, new agricultural techniques such as crop rotation spread through word of mouth. During the industrial revolution, America and Europe were able to use technologies from Britain. When Henry Ford invented the assembly line, the idea was rapidly adopted everywhere. But today’s technologies – from business software to pharmaceuticals and biotechnology – are protected by patents that make it impossible for other countries to adopt.
- Corruption – We often think of corruption as a problem of developing countries, but this ignores the fact that the money for corruption comes from, and often returns to, industrialised countries. Rich western companies pay bribes, in return for access to contracts or minerals. To his eternal credit, President Jimmy Carter introduced the Foreign Corrupt Practises Act, which made it harder for American companies to pay bribes abroad. But there is much more we could do, if we were prepared to take on the vested interests of our own multinational companies, to reduce corruption in developing countries.
- International governance – In our own nations, we have long ago dropped the property qualification for representation; but internationally we do not think that it is strange that representation in our main institutions is based on wealth and power. This matters because again and again, the interests of developing nations are ignored, or treated only as a footnote. From banking secrecy to internet peering arrangement, the rules of the game are set by the wealthy in their own interests. Changes to these practices which would be irrelevant to most of us, but could make a huge difference to the prospects for development, are resisted by powerful vested interests from industrialized countries.
It is entirely reasonable that industrialized countries want both to promote transformation in developing countries, and to help people there to live better lives while that process is taking place. Aid has been proven to be an effective instrument for meeting our solidarity objective, but it is far less clear that it is a significant driver of transformative change. Our political rhetoric focuses on the idea that development policies should promote transformation. Yet it seems unlikely that aid is the most useful tool we have for achieving this. If we are serious about transformation we should invest more time and effort in creating the global environment in which economic and social change are more likely to succeed, by changing our policies and behaviours on issues like trade, agricultural policies and immigration.
Many people who work in development are directly or indirectly dependent on aid. Government development agencies gain their bureaucratic position from the size of their budget. International NGOs get a lot of their money from aid budgets or from private charitable giving. Partly as a result, the debate about development too often shifts to aid: whether it works, how much is given and by what means. These are important questions, but primarily for the important goal of helping people in developing countries to live better lives while they are waiting for, and helping to build, a more prosperous and fair society. If we are serious about accelerating the transformation, it is our development policies, not aid policy, that we should be discussing.