Wednesday, 6 July 2005

More criticisms of Foreign aid

As a result of my criticisms of foreign aid, I am often asked how I justify the work of the World Land Trust. To me the answer is simple. First it is not aid, in the way that humanitarian charities dish it out, and second it is part of a clearly thought out strategy.

What does the WLT fund?

When the WLT is approached with a project by a potential overseas partner, the project is evaluated against a set of criteria -- these criteria are given on our website for anyone to see. Particularly important criteria, are the exit strategy, and the prospects for long-term sustainablility. And this is where I see major differences between our approach and those involving humanitarian aid.

Muddled thinking

Everything I see and hear leads me to the conclusion that there is a huge amount of very muddled thinking, with totally unrealistic targets being set. We realise that what the WLT is doing is small, and not on the scale that is really needed to change the world. But at least it is realistic and achievable, because we have thought it through. But for politicians (looking at the next election) and rock stars (image conscious) to claim they are going to make poverty history, is not only unrealistic, but misguided. First, what do they actually mean by poverty? Poverty does not have objective criteria, it is a constantly moving and variable definition. Do they mean raise everyone to the minimum standard of living expected in Britain or the USA? If so have they thought of the implications for global warming, if the population of Africa or Asia consumed the same amount of energy as even the poorer people in the developed world? In our money-orientated world, we have perhaps forgotten that money cannot solve all problems. In fact, the introduction of cash into rural economies can be a contributing factor actually causing poverty.

Where does all the money go?

And what happens when aid is dished out? What happens when a developing country's economy starts to grow as a result of aid? Where are the profits from such development banked and invested -- that is surely the root of the problem. The so called free market philosophies simply mean that anyone making profit in the developing world, will inevitably invest those profits in Swiss banks or other parts of the developed world. Even such countries as Argentina, with considerable natural wealth, have seen exactly that happen; as soon as there was an economic downturn, there was a mass exodus of capital to the USA and elsewhere.

The demands for debt relief are well meant, but if they simply lead to more debt being incurred, probably pointless. And while the developed world continues to give loans (in order to sell arms and other commodities), the cycle will continue. Will the debt relief have any impact at all on those living in refugee camps? I doubt it.

Buying Land

A dilemma for the World Land Trust involves the purchase of lands. When for instance, we provide the funds for our partner to buy land, in Ecuador, the funds are in dollars. The vendor may or may not put that money in a local bank -- there is nothing to stop those funds going straight into the USA. However, the positive side is that the land, which is in the longterm the most valuable asset, is retained within the country, owned and managed by a local NGO. The land becomes the capital needed for developing sustainable incomes -- for ecotourism, scientific tourism and any activity which provides employment and local incomes, without destroying the resource base.

Finally the sort of criticisms bandied about concerning foreign aid ending up in the wrong hands, often all too true. And the NGOs are often far from blameless. I don't think I have ever seen so many gleaming new white 4x4s as in Kampala, and a large number were for the NGOs, who are also drawing fat salaries, living in airconditioned hotels, while doling out aid to truly impoverished and desperate people. I could go on, but before anyone rushes to the defense of individual projects (and I know there are some that are well thought out) I would point out that it is the overall impact I am discussing. I do not see any evidence that the majority of humanitarian aid achieves its long term objectives (presuming that the long term objectives are to improve the lot of the poorer people dwelling in a country). This is particularly true in most of Africa.


Solving the problems is more difficult, and I do not pretend in anyway to have relevant expertise, but land reform is probably one of the issues. Certainly, in effect that is what the WLT and its partners are attempting. We are bring back into public ownership lands that should be owned by the world at large, and not exploited for individual gain. Finally it all boils down to the thing that no one mentions: human population growth.

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