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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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British aid keeps on funding repellent regimes

Published by The Times (3rd April, 2018)

Politicians of all persuasions love aid. It allows them to pose as protectors of the poor and saviours of the world, cloaking themselves in compassion as they flit around the globe pretending to fix the toughest problems. Instead of the usual fury over funding of schools and hospitals at home, they are cheered on by celebrities and charity chiefs for generosity abroad.

This issue provokes rare unity among mainstream parties. They ignore public concerns to back a discredited aid target that binds them to hand over soaring sums from taxpayers. Poverty is falling faster than at any time in history due to capitalism, technology and scientific advance. But they insist we spray billions around the planet on vainglorious projects, and anyone who disagrees is either a heartless reactionary or hate-fuelled racist.

Budgets doubled under Labour and will almost double again under a decade of Tory prime ministers. This corrodes the noble concept of helping those most in need by fostering a self-serving industry that chases swelling budgets, promotes corruption and abuses power, as seen in the Oxfam scandal. Now we have fresh insight into the absurdity and duplicity of this destructive aid stance thanks to a savage indictment of one key strand of spending.

This follows an inquiry by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the official aid watchdog, into the opaque Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). Forgive the clunky titles and acronyms; you get a lot of these in the aid sector, but bear with me. For this report rips apart those self-serving platitudes about helping the poor and dispossessed, exposing evidence-free projects that end up aiding rich elites and repellent regimes.

The CSSF is based on the idea that a sprinkling of foreign cash can stop conflict and create thriving states. You might have thought Afghanistan or Iraq challenge such concepts, but clearly not. The billion-pound fund is the successor to cross-departmental schemes established in 2001 — but with a bigger budget, of course. Evaluations in 2004, then again in 2012, suggested it might be worth checking their effectiveness. Promises of “comprehensive monitoring” were made. Yet nothing was done.

It seems sensible to examine evidence before blowing big sums, especially when intervention in troubled places becomes a key plank of policy as poverty plummets. But politicians set a target that prioritises spending over need, let alone common sense, so such distractions get swept aside. And hey, it feels good to be a peacemaker, especially when there is the added political benefit of telling voters you are slowing migration, regardless of the reality that people are more likely to move from the poorest places as they grow wealthier.

The result is a damning report stuffed with scathing comments about ‘inadequate theories of change’ and saying starkly there is ‘no evidence to back up the stated objective of supporting stabilisation’ in Iraq. Projects lack ‘plausible indicators, baselines, targets or milestones and therefore had no way of assessing whether they were achieving their intended results.’ In Colombia, schemes used an analysis of conflict written three years before the 2016 peace agreement.

Case studies reveal overreliance on training ‘which contradicts the available evidence of what works’. This gives a glimpse into the risible conference culture beloved by this sector since donors can boast about numbers attending, ‘experts’ fly around the world giving their spiels and those listening pocket expenses. I met one man in Kenya who told me he lived off going to such events.

In Jordan, inspectors found that a water supply system increased leakages and led some families to receive reduced supplies. In Mali, money went on a prison not used as intended and training given to women on the false assumption they joined combat missions. In Colombia, reconciliation events were an excuse for elites to give speeches. This fund also built a prison wing in Nigeria, where billions in oil revenues have been stolen, while the BBC has alleged that money went to jihadists and phantom police officers in Syria.

Other beneficiaries include fat-cat companies with bosses on chunky six-figure salaries, since the poverty industry offers rich pickings. But perhaps most sickening is how this scheme boosts bloodstained regimes such as those of Bahrain, Egypt and Ethiopia. The watchdog exposed projects working with security forces ‘suspected of violating human rights . . . [this] risks legitimising them and their actions, or even becoming complicit in violations’. Mandatory checks were either low quality, focusing on risks to our own reputation, or simply not conducted.

This fund symbolises much that is flawed with Westminster’s aid fetish, now being questioned even by African leaders. Behind it lies something more sinister. Most CSSF money is spent by the Foreign Office, which is getting its hands on more aid cash despite an atrocious record that includes assisting North Korean officials. So why fritter away so much on untested theories in dodgy places that can backfire?

The reason is revealed again in the watchdog’s report, which questions schemes aimed at ‘securing diplomatic access and influence’. This is about our strength, not their development, and again we see exposed the neo-colonial nature of aid. For all the soft focus and fine words, much of this lavish spending is to make donors look good or extend their reach. This fund shows another abuse of power: by arrogant British politicians duping the global poor and their own domestic voters.

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