Sunday, October 31, 2010

Overseas aid is funding human rights abuses

By Peter Oborne

The curious modern creed that foreign aid is automatically virtuous has its origins in two powerful social phenomena: the collapse of trust in politics, and the cult of celebrity. Ambitious politicians crave the stardust that attaches to pop stars such as Bono. Meanwhile, their strategists have noted that while the membership of mainstream political parties is in freefall, organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children boast millions of supporters.

New Labour was the first to take advantage. Tony Blair’s decision to create a separate Department for International Development (DFID) ensured the endorsement of Bono and others, while making a very plausible grab for the Oxfam vote. This posed a problem for the Conservative Party, which had a long-standing and well-founded scepticism about foreign aid. The economist Peter Bauer, one of Margaret Thatcher’s gurus, had notoriously claimed that there was no measurable link of any kind between foreign donations and economic development. If anything, thought Bauer, aid probably hinders growth, as it leads directly to corruption, the misallocation of resources and the erosion of civil society.

With the arrival of David Cameron, the Tories gave up. One of his early moves was to invite Bono to the party conference. The new leader’s international development spokesman, Andrew Mitchell, embraced the New Labour paradigm. Teams of Tory ministers and MPs accompanied Mitchell to build schools in Rwanda. There was a naked calculation behind this idealism: to rebrand the Conservative Party.

All this may have been admirable. But the cross-party consensus on overseas aid was dangerous. There was no one to investigate reports of embezzlement and express scepticism. Meanwhile, spending soared from £2.6 billion in 1999 to £6.5 billion in 2005, and a prodigious £8.7 billion in the current financial year – approximately £300 for each and every British family. The process reached its apotheosis in last week’s spending review. With cuts in almost every other department, DFID emerged the clear winner, with spending projected to rise by an extraordinary 37 per cent over the next four years.

Such a massive splurge would perhaps be welcome if we could be confident that the money was well-spent. But throughout the New Labour years, there was no attempt to establish this (and the Tories and Lib Dems did not want to express a dissenting view). This cosy consensus was finally broken last week with the publication of an authoritative report from a most unexpected source – the respected humanitarian organisation Human Rights Watch.

The study, which concentrates on Ethiopia, shows how the system works in practice. The findings are horrifying. The country is one of our biggest recipients of aid, with a DFID budget of nearly £300 million and a staff of 250 officials. Yet Human Rights Watch has shown that DFID is incompetent to monitor, let alone account for, the prodigious sums it disburses. Much more troubling, it has proved beyond doubt that hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money is being spent to keep in power an unpleasant and authoritarian Maoist government.

It is important to address the report in detail because, although published more than a week ago, it has been ignored. Labour’s international aid spokesman, Harriet Harman, has made no reference, most likely because it exposes negligence under New Labour. The same applies to Mr Mitchell, now International Development Secretary. The conspiracy of silence extends to the British media, where only this newspaper has given the study any coverage. It is easy to explain this omerta: at a stroke, Human Rights Watch has smashed every conventional piety about foreign aid, and therefore raised very awkward questions.

The facts are grim. Ethiopia is in effect a one-party state whose president, Meles Zenawi, has a shocking record of human rights abuse. Last May’s general election, in which the ruling party secured some 99.6 per cent of the parliamentary seats after a long, vicious campaign of intimidation, provides ample evidence.

For years DFID has collaborated – there is no other word – with Zenawi’s dictatorship. We have donated massive amounts towards food aid, fertiliser, health and education. Rather than administer this aid, we have – unforgivably – allowed Zenawi and his thugs to use it for political manipulation and control. Starving people get told they can only have food if they support the ruling party. Teachers have received donor funds – but only in return for spewing out official propaganda. One British-backed programme, designed to train civil servants, has been adapted to indoctrinate trainees in the loathsome ideology of the ruling party.

The implications of the Human Rights Watch report (based on months working undercover, often in remote and dangerous areas, by a researcher) stretch far beyond Ethiopia. It seems likely that the same abuse of aid goes on in other countries. Rwanda – beloved of the modern Conservative Party – is an obvious case. Here again we are dealing with a culture of repression, what amounts to a one-party state and a president who has just been returned with an improbable share of the vote (93.08 per cent). Licensed assassination and the jailing of opponents and journalists characterised the election period. Yet DFID has been happy to fund the National Electoral Commission, which tolerates blatantly undemocratic elections on a jaw-dropping scale, and the so-called Media High Council, a state-affiliated body which has recently suspended the country’s two most popular independent newspapers.

The brutal truth has to be declared. DFID has enjoyed at best mixed fortunes since it was founded in 1997. Its seven-year presence in Iraq after the 2003 invasion has been an unmitigated and extremely expensive disaster, and Afghanistan looks like turning into a similar story. Yet so fixed is the cross-party belief in the virtue of foreign aid, that it alone was last week exempted from the hostile and rigorous scrutiny of costs that other parts of government were forced to endure.

To be fair to DFID, it is very hard to contribute aid to countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda without getting too close for comfort to the regime, however unpleasant. It is harder still – perhaps impossible – in war zones. That is why some argue that the real goal of foreign aid should not be democracy and human rights, but simply to remedy urgent human suffering.

But denial is no way of dealing with these issues – especially not when George Osborne appears determined to prove the truth of the old remark that foreign aid is a mechanism for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries. It is time for a public debate which entertains the possibility that Bauer might have been right, and Bono wrong. Above all, we need to end the dirty culture of silence that suppresses any talk of the deep complicity between the aid lobby and human rights abuse.

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