Sunday, 8 February 2009

Review: The trouble with aid

Below is my brief review of Jonathan Glennie's 'The Trouble with Aid' for the February issue of Peace News. I hadn't seen Peace News for a while when I was asked to write this review. The last time I saw it, in 2006, I was less than impressed. A feature article about Venezuela, for instance, spent much time regretting Chavez's military background and virtually failed to mention the social advances that had taken place under his Presidency.

Looking at the December/January issue online, Peace News now seems more relevant and useful, even if its constituency must remain small. Clearly Milan Rai's editorship of the paper has improved it, and I'm happy to make a small contribution in the form of this review.

The Trouble with Aid: Why Less Could Mean More for Africa Jonathan Glennie, Zed, 2008.

This isn't a book about humanitarian relief, or really about the aid delivered by aid agencies at all. Instead its about the much bigger sums which rich country governments contribute to African infrastructure, governance and welfare systems on a regular basis. Most African countries receive more than 10 per cent of their GDP in aid, and a few, like Sierra Leone and Burundi, receive more than 30 per cent.

Aid received on this scale has an enormous impact, but not necessarily a good one Glennie argues. For a start, governments who are dependent on aid like this end up being more accountable to donors than to the people they are supposed to represent. And when those donors insist on economic policies like privatisation or the lowering of import taxes, aid dependence undermines not just democracy, but development too.

Glennie isn't opposed to aid, but calls himself an aid 'realist'. He makes a convincing case that there's lots rich countries could do to help reduce global poverty that would be far more effective than aid is even in the best scenarios. Like closing down tax havens that deny poor countries tax revenue for instance. Instead they promise aid increases because its easy, its buys influence among recipient countries and it presents no challenge at all to Northern corporations.

This is an accessible and tightly argued book which makes a refreshing change to both the uncritical calls for 'more aid' from some development charities, and from the neoconservative assumptions of last year's best-selling development book 'The Bottom Billion' by former World Bank economist Paul Collier. What Glennie is arguing for is a global justice agenda, and in that he's bang on target.

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