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Aid in Africa

For at least the last two decades, Africa has been a major priority for the UK’s foreign aid. Over half of that budget is spent on the continent, yet the fight against poverty and hunger is still to be won. How can that aid best be targeted to ensure meaningful outcomes? How can investment and development by companies large and small be encouraged and sustained? What role is there for technology – both new and established – to secure Africans a prosperous, healthy future?

Click on the icons below to read our authors' analyses of these questions.


At present, the UK spends over £12 billion each year on foreign aid and, since 2013, she has met the United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on it. Of that budget, over 40 per cent goes to multinational organisations such as the UN, with the remainder going directly to developing countries in the form of “bilateral aid”. 


The argument in favour of meeting this target conventionally runs that the spending conveys moral authority on the global stage. But in and of itself, this argument cannot be correct. We earn moral authority by doing moral good, and this demands that we look rationally and critically at the effectiveness of our aid spending, rather than merely at its size. 


The most prominent examples of our spending come in wake of natural disasters or wars. The UK has spent close to £1 billion in helping the refugees who have fled Syria and are now being sheltered in camps in neighbouring countries. In cases such as these, where the need for humanitarian aid is constant and immediate, the case for spending is compelling. It has also been shown that “reconstructive aid” — as in Europe after the Second World War — tends to be effective in helping countries quickly back to health. 


We must remember, however, that such aid amounts to no more than 15 per cent of our total spend. The remaining 85 per cent is allocated to “social” projects which, time and again, give no appreciable boost to economic growth abroad and often garner public derision.


Of course, economic growth need not be our only concern, and the “social” spending might be “forgiven” if it benefitted the poor and those most in need. Instead, however, comparative studies frequently reveal that countries receiving the most aid tend to develop the most uneven distribution of income. Funding too easily finds it way into the hands of the wrong people, with the result that our spending is simply taking from poor people in rich countries to give to rich people in poor countries. 

These considerations raise a stark question: Why have a spending target at all? At best, we meet the target and may allow ourselves to feel good without actually having done good. At worst, we fail to meet the target and have to hurry to fund increasingly ridiculous projects. Examples of this latter scenario abound in the public consciousness. The instinct to give is undoubtedly a noble one but few cannot relate to the sense of public alarm that, for example, we have given more than £150 million to India and over £350 million to Pakistan in the last year, yet both of these countries can afford space programmes. 


What should we do instead? Disaster relief has proven effective and should, naturally, be maintained. Rather than allow it to be drowned out in a potentially fruitless quest to meet a target, however, it should be more intimately bound up with our other international efforts — with defence, security, support for democracy, and the encouragement of investment and technology in developing economies.


As one example of the latter, consider a devastating problem about which few in the UK will have heard. The Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is a maize-eating caterpillar, native to the Americas but invasive in Africa. Last year, it was estimated to cost 12 African countries £4.6 billion in lost crops, on which 200 million people depend. It has now been found in 16 more countries, with Ghana declaring a state of emergency in response. The African Development Bank calls it a “clear and present danger”.


This makes for shocking reading, but the appalling tragedy is that a great deal is known about how to combat the threat posed by the caterpillar, as it is often encountered in North America.


Yet much is known about how to combat this threat, as it is encountered in North America. Can those same techniques be brought to bear in Africa? Would such endeavours make for a good use of UK aid, and command public support?


Allowing such considerations as these to shape our approach to aid can ensure that the UK continues to play an active role in development abroad, deploying it precisely and effectively, rather than in pursuit of an arbitrary target.  By more actively stimulating the value added by investment in infrastructure, a bold new approach to aid can allow develop to prosper independently and sustainably. That way, rather than the empty victory of meeting a spending target, we can ensure that we earn our global moral authority by meeting meaningfully our global moral obligations. 

Dr Robert Thomas is a scientist, writer and Executive Director of Accademia.

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