Moral money

Moral money

21 Aug 2014

What do Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe and North Korea have in common? There may be several answers but one is that, along with 145 other nations, they are recipients of UK Official Development Assistance (ODA). In 2012, total UK aid was £8.766 billion or 0.56% of gross national income. According to the press, this may have risen to 0.70% in 2013, which is the target suggested by the UN for members of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC).

In 2012 the average DAC member trailed well behind the 0.70% target at 0.30% (the US and Japan were both well below the average, the Scandinavian countries were well above). So, if the UK has hit 0.70%, it will be awarding itself a gold star.

All UK politicians (with the exception of UKIP) seem to believe that ODA emits a moral glow, in which light they can disport themselves to effect. Doubtless they can’t help themselves and, though a fairly revolting sight, it beats fighting wars.  

But I find myself wondering what sort of policy determines the choice of ODA recipients. In 2012, India topped the list with 7.9% of total bilateral aid. (NB bilateral aid is what we give directly – about half of our aid budget is multilateral which means that we donate to international organisations which then pass it on however and wherever they deem best).  India is one of the IMF’s official emerging nations. Is it the most deserving charitable destination in the world?

Clearly, a better way to understand these figures is to look at ODA per head. On that basis, India falls to 67th (still in the top half) and above Burundi and Niger, two of the poorest countries of all, both with average annual per capita incomes of less than $1000.

The top per capita recipient of UK ODA is barely believable. St Helena is a British Dependent Territory with a population of around 4500. In 2012 the UK gave bilateral aid of £106 million or c.£23,500 per head. Apparently we are building them an airport so that they can become a tourist destination. I have read in the press that the total cost of this airport (not yet completed) will be £250 million.

Our overseas development aid seems to be allocated somewhat randomly, to say the least. It certainly bears little relation to the per capita incomes of the recipients. All the world’s poorest countries are African. As recently as 2008, we gave more aid to Asia than to Africa. Even now Africa receives just 40% of the total. Who decides this?

I imagine that many of the ODA decisions are political, thereby dimming some of the moral shine from our aid budget. Certainly, major beneficiaries such as Afghanistan (2nd for total bilateral) Nigeria (4th), Congo Democratic Republic (8th) and Zimbabwe (9th) would not appear to be obvious targets for our largesse on the grounds of their human rights practices.

This year, the US cut aid to Uganda in explicit protest at its laws imposing harsh punishments for homosexuality. This appears to be having some effect.

Whatever the priorities are for UK ODA, this particular issue does not seem to weigh. I have crunched the numbers. In 2012, 73% of the UK’s bilateral aid went to counties in which homosexuality is illegal. This includes much of Africa but also India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and many Caribbean countries.  

How about a debate in the UK that goes beyond grandstanding about how much aid we give and instead focuses on where it goes? 

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