Hilary Benn and Bill Easterly Debate on DFID

Very interesting debate in this month's Prospect between Hilary Benn (Britain's Cabinet Minister with responsibility for International Development) and Bill Easterly, a critic of government aid.

For me, the money quote from Hilary Benn is this: 

All functioning governments have essential features in common: a capacity to do things, good financial and information management, clear lines of accountability and freedom from corruption, to name just a few. We owe it to the world’s poor to help their governments to develop these capacities. Strong economic growth and fair trade are simply the fastest and most effective ways to get people out of poverty, and both of these require governments to work properly.

9 thoughts on “Hilary Benn and Bill Easterly Debate on DFID”

  1. ‘All functioning governments have essential features in common: a capacity to do things,’

    Max Hastings in The Guardian this morning:

    ‘ As with so much else this government has attempted, the purpose has been admirable, the execution lamentable.’

    Explains a lot.

  2. I was less impressed with Easterly than I have been in the past. He seemed to be retreating from any discussion of the complexities of aid into a nihilistic “do small things only” attitude. Whilst I am extremely skeptical of Sachs’ views on the need to radically scale up aid I definitely fall between Benn and Easterly, more towards Benn than I had thought. That being said I do not believe for one second that ‘all functioning governments are free of corruption’, and I think the picture is more nuanced than Benn suggests. I’m very interested in the work David Ellerman has done on the relationship between donor and recipient and what it means in terms of the issues of aid dependency and lack of domestic accountability that Easterly emphasises as the downside of foreign aid.

  3. Benn’s rhetoric does not chime with his recent tantrum with the World Bank over its modus operandi towards reducing corruption.  If he wants functioning governments, the rampant corruption and cronyism that exists in many high-aid recipient countries needs to be stamped on.  Propping up kakistocratic regimes does absolutely nothing to develop good governance.


  4. Tom

    I think you have been misled.  UK aid is not used to prop up corrupt regimes.  If there was a difference of opinion with the World Bank, it was about the best ways to tackle corruption, not about the importance of doing so.


  5. Owen

    It’s not a black and white issue though, is it? Budget support to countries like Sierra Leone can hardly be judged as 100 percent free of the chance of expropriation. If some of that money is used to buy votes then there is an extent to which aid is propping up the government. Whether the government in a particular place is being propped up or not, whether this is acceptable or not, is then a much more subjective judgement.


  6. Owen,

    So, DfID provides budget aid to the Museveni government which operates a single party system.  No propping up there then?

    I enjoyed the debate between Easterly and Benn, but unlike you, I think Benn came off worst.  The setting of overly ambitious targets is not just a problem at DfID, but across many of the government agencies I have worked in and around, since the Blair government came to power.  Another classic target is the promise of the Northern RDAs to ‘close the £30billion output gap between the North and South of England’, a target so misguided and dumb it just distracts from the real issue of getting anything done. Similarly, the target of ending world poverty is so far outside the aegis of DfID as to be meaningless.  If you set silly targets, you get silly projects and cause and effect become almost impossible to prove.

    As for the issue of how you measure success, again I find Easterly’s argument far more persuasive.  Unfortunately the development world, is now saddled with cretins like Geldof who couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag and come out with classics such as the ‘Just give us yer k*ckin money’ quote.  I tend to prefer Schumpter’s quote "Econonomies make money, money doesn’t make economies’. 

    Aid has been poured into places such as Kenya, which year on year has got poorer and poorer, largely as a result of non-existent governance and rampant corruption.  Most rational people would like to see what is given being spent properly, before the begging bowl is extended for more of the same. 



  7. I found that an interesting debate as well. I must say that the critic from Bill Easterly of overly ambitious goals is very clear and plausible and indeed makes it impossible to measure success. However in the course of the debate I found that Benn was more nuanced and balanced than Easterly. It is an understandable desire to radically reform foreign aid to a clear, measurable and reduced objective or to abandon it completely against the background of the mediocre performance of foreign aid in the past. However that does not capture the complexities of the real world and Easterly’s suggestion to focus on providing the basic infrastructure to the poor directly without involving the governments in the recipient countries could create more problems than it would solve. First it would strongly solidify the passive expectations of the poor, that "white men gives us things for free" and not empower them. That is not homegrown development. Okay the techniques are more advanced today with various participatory elements etc., however the basic expectation, that white men gives the ressources to battle poverty would be reinforced. Second I agree with Benn, that it would weaken democracy and governments in recipient countries and render them negligible. Sure it would limit their possibilities to expropriate ressources but it would give them zero incentives and zero opportunities to reduce corruption and enhance the functioning of the executive. You need to work with the governments as well and probably even more than with the poor, since Benn is absolutely right when he says that a functioning government is the most crucial factor for sustainability.

  8. Hello Owen…  terrific blog, by the way.

    I wondered if you had a view on the peremptory cancellation of the fraud investigation into BAE Systems and ‘commissions’ paid to prominent Saudis.  As you put it, Hilary Benn’s ‘money quote’ in this Prospect debate was:

    All functioning governments have essential features in common: a capacity to do things, good financial and information management, clear lines of accountability and freedom from corruption, to name just a few. We owe it to the world’s poor to help their governments to develop these capacities.

    Hmmm… so where does the cancellation leave the war on graft, DFID’s legitimacy in egagement with corrupt regimes, and the government’s anti-corruption Tzar (aka Hilary Benn)? I personally don’t buy the security co-operation argument – why would Saudi stop cooperation given their own vulnerability to Al Quaeda?  So if it was jobs, was it justified by the price we’ll pay in our international influence?

     Perhaps even worth an entirely new posting!

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