Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thoughts on British foreign aid

Over on William Easterly's blog I posted the following as a comment. You can read the article here -
Back in 2007 I visited Ethiopia, it was my first, and so far only visit. I'll not go into too much detail here, but just that one visit, preparing for it, and what happened next taught me a lot about Ethiopia, aid, and how my own country - I work for the UK Met Office, fails to help the poor. The reason for the visit was the realisation that I and some colleagues had that providing "developed country grade" weather forecasts to Ethiopian farmers would enable them to produce more food, perhaps as much as 10% more for the whole country. So we wanted to see if the infrastructure there could support delivering the right information to the right people, and as far as it went the answer was yes. Though as with so many things related to aid, the sensible thing didn't happen, so the farmers still don't get the forecasts. What happens instead is of course entirely rational if aid is being provided by a democracy. Except of course much of the aid is wasted - since there's no reason to be efficient, or effective, just as fair as possible. It seems likely that those who identify where UK aid goes don't want to be providing aid to people who could be helped by their own government. Hence aid goes to the poorest countries. Once the country has been identified the aid is then directed towards the poorest regions, and quite possibly to the poorest communities and eventually to the poorest people. In many ways I'm entirely happy with this arrangement if it doesn't stop development. Trouble is my own experience is that it does inhibit development. To trial improvements in agricultural productivity in Ethiopia our project needed to work with farmers that weren't on the edge of famine but who produced a surplus and had the necessary networks to market an even greater surplus and invest in their community. There are many such farmers in the more central regions on Ethiopia, that of course never get discussed when aid is the topic. We haven't given up, and after quite a lot of grief from our bosses, we didn't even get sacked - I suppose that's one bonus of being a UK civil servant. So if all goes well the project will restart later this year, but working with farmers in Nepal.

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