Friday, 16 April 2004

Foreign aid still aids the donor

Many years ago, when I was Secretary of the Fauna Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International) the guest speaker at an AGM was the late Professor Kai Curry Lindahl, an eminent Swedish international conservationist. His address to the society dealt with how foreign aid inevitably benefited the donor countries more than the recipients.

As an example, if a UK foreign aid project donates a Land Rover worth £20,000 it may end up that over the 15 years of its working life, it costs more than that in maintenance and spare parts, all of which have to be purchased from the UK. And numerous projects insist on 'experts' being provided by the donor country.

The WLT recently applied for a Darwin Initiative grant towards its work in N E India. A condition of the grant aid was that the project had to include British technical expertise and training. This ignores the fact that there is plenty of local expertise, which would be a lot more cost effective. But by giving a grant that involves paying British experts the UK government are ensuring that the money is not only largely cycled through the British economy, but the experts also pay British taxes so they actually get some of the money back. And we are not talking small amounts of money. A field Assistant in India would cost around £600 a year, and a Field Officer £2000, somewhere between one tenth and one twentieth of their British counterparts. It is a new form of Imperialism -- using foreign aid to ensure a country is kept in debt – even if it is intellectual debt – as well as ensuring they receive as little of the actual cash as possible. In a country such as India, real aid would allow the decision on who to employ to be made on grounds of merit, experience and capability, not nationality. This is not to say that there should not be controls on foreign aid -- having seen the abuses in Uganda, I believe it essential that donor countries exert strict fiscal controls – but recipients need to be empowered, and not become intellectually enslaved. Since it started, the Darwin Initiative has been used to plough hundreds of thousands of pounds into the Natural History Museum and various British Universities, thereby saving the government funding from other budgets -- a blatant case of robbing Peter to Pay Paul.

The WLT complied with the conditions for the Darwin grant, added in British experts, but still did not get a grant – apparently because the UK government's experts did not think the project was achievable. The fact that we are now making it work despite their rejection is another story. Unlike many government funded foreign aid projects one of the key objectives of all WLT projects is to ensure that they have long term sustainability. The world is littered with projects that were funded by foreign aid, often lavishly, then the day the aid stopped, the project collapsed. This is often worse than if the project had never been started in the first place. Fortunately some governments do realise the failings of the foreign aid system, and look increasingly to NGOs to deliver projects, and their success rates do appear to be higher.

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