Stop this sick corruption of compassion

Published by The Mail on Sunday (11th December, 2016)

Like many people of my generation, influenced by the begging bowl concerts of Live Aid, I wanted to believe in aid and the idea that we could end poverty on our planet with enough cash.

But over the years I have been investigating the aid industry, I have discovered the flaws in this simplistic argument – and that something dark lies at the heart of this swollen sector. And that is the C-word: corruption.

Not just the corruption of cash being stolen – although there is enough of that going on as budgets become ever bigger. British donations will double over this decade to an incredible £16 billion by 2020.

But the more insidious, corrosive kind of corruption caused by uncontrolled sums of money swilling around Whitehall and then sprayed across the world regardless of cautionary advice coming from economists, experts and developing nations.

This kind of corruption warps the human spirit. So people professing to do good end up causing harm, conniving to cover up misdeeds and crunchiing the core ideals they claim to espouse.

Sadly, I have seen this all too often as major charities and fat cat private firms chase gold spewing from government coffers. They pose as modern-day saviours of the poor, clad in the clothing of compassion, while serving their own interests and lining their own pockets.

This is why officials in the Department for International Development have the highest median salaries in Whitehall at £52,700 a year – more than twice the average across the civil service. Some have had bonuses, presumably as reward for shoving enough cash out of the door.

This is why a giant charity such as Save the Children thinks it acceptable to issue emotive appeals for cash while it collects £104 million in contracts from the state, colludes on a campaign for aid with Ministers that dupes the public and pays a former Danish politician £235,000 a year in salary.

And this is why we find a company such as Adam Smith International, Britain’s largest specialist aid contractor, engaged in dirty tricks to protect soaring profits and margins as it – along with other private firms – milks the largesse of taxpayers that allows it to dole out hefty six-figure sums as rewards to its directors.

There are even contractors that fail to pay tax as they cream off cash from running projects for the state. Sadly none of this is surprising to me now – although I have frequently been accused of not caring about global problems of poverty for pointing out such hard truths.

That’s why this paper has campaigned with vigour to restore sanity to this public spending boom. Bad aid causes damage to both developing nations and domestic faith in politics.

The campaign has showed the folly of forcing government to give away 0.7 per cent of national income to hit a dodgy and outdated aid target proscribed by the UN. It exposed concern among voters, with readers responding in such big numbers to a petition and forcing a parliamentary debate.

A succession of stories has revealed the results of this daft policy with revenues from taxes used to help pay salaries for Palestinian terrorists, provide English lessons for North Korean government officials and pump cash into countries wealthy enough to have their own space programmes. The latest scandal involving Adam Smith International, as reported over the past fortnight, is the inevitable consequence of politicians thinking they look kind by frittering other people’s money.

This is what happens when spending is determined by doling out a fixed slice of UK wealth rather than needs on the ground, let alone controlling ever-rising torrents of cash.

And when a state department, now more powerful in many developing nations than the once-imperious foreign office, develops the blinkered mindset of an obsessive idealist and starts behaving like a charity.

A system develops in which people flit without controls between the department doling out huge sum of cash and those spending it; in which evaluations are carried out by the same firms chasing multi-million-pound contracts; and in which politicians, celebrities and journalists accept favours they would frown on elsewhere.

As one aid contractor put it to me this week: ‘When a Dfid contract to run a project is worth millions and you get paid £20,000 to evaluate it, why would a consultant ever criticise a scheme?’ Especially when those that do get forced from the gravy train, criticism is buried under fresh reports from more pliant operators and talk of transparency turns out to be little more than empty words.

So corruption goes ignored – or as another insider told me this week, endless workshops replace any real attempts to stop theft. Whistleblowers are crushed rather than cherished, as I reported when one Briton spoke out about shameful profligacy in the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

I have seen documents exposing how more than half the huge budgets proclaimed as assisting poor people disappear on bureaucracy. Money meant to alleviate hardship gets swallowed up by fat salaries for consultants, flights home, smart cars and lovely houses with cleaners.

I have heard from decent aid workers dismayed by waste and modish policies calcifying attempts to help the poor or resolve humanitarian crises; from Asian academics angered by the way the aid boom fuels corruption and undermines development of democracy in their nation; and from young Africans infuriated by the sight of wealthy Westerners jetting in for endless talking shops.

Such annoyance is only intensified when local staff doing the same jobs as Westerners get paid less by charities and contractors, which undermines claims of fairness alleged to lie at the heart of this hypocritical world. No wonder so many people increasingly resent the patronising policies of the poverty industry.

Slowly but surely, the lucrative aid sector and its lavish spending is being exposed. Even the most devout aid disciples are starting to accept that a tide of uncontrolled aid can lead to a calcifying dependency culture.

It felt significant to see former Development Minister Andrew Mitchell – the Tory guru of aid – distance himself last week from the idea of embedding the absurd UN aid target in law.

There are many good people trying to achieve great things within the aid world. And there are many urgent humanitarian problems around the planet. But as elsewhere there are also many careerists and charlatans, sophists and swindlers, often styling themselves as saviours.

The lesson of recent events is that the same concerns, constraints and controls that apply to all other branches of state spending should apply to aid.

And that even people who preach fine sermons about fighting poverty can turn out to be selling a poisonous brand of snake oil.

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