Fighting poverty: Getting value for money from foreign aid

WHEN a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine,” smoulders Hector Malone in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. It was “starvation” that killed 1m people and sent another million to pack their bags and emigrate. Not famine.

Fighting poverty: Getting value for money from foreign aid

Shaw was writing about the years 1845-48, but his words strike as much relevance in 2013.

Just as in “Black ’47”, when up to 4,000 vessels steamed and sailed from Irish ports laden with grain and livestock for Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, and London, there is enough food for everyone to eat today. We live in a world of plenty, one where the number of high net-worth individuals grew by 5% in 2012.

But it is also one of scarcity, one in which 870m people still go to bed hungry every night, living from one day to the next not knowing where their next meal will come from.

Tackling the gross inequalities identified by President Michael D Higgins that allow for this unjust and ever-growing gap has long confounded policymakers and governments. But yesterday, the Government made a bold statement about what it intends to do about it. And it was a refreshing one.

In a white paper on Ireland’s policy for international development, One World, One Future, the Government has acknowledged that aid alone will not solve the problems of poverty and hunger.

It says that lasting solutions that will lift people out of poverty must be underpinned by developing countries’ own leadership, their ability to raise revenue and boost foreign direct investment”, and “to integrate into world markets”.

This means tackling gross inequalities such as six out of the 10 most unequal countries in the world being located in sub-Saharan Africa. High levels of inequality not only harm economic growth, they lock people into cycles of poverty, with one generation after another unable to lift themselves out of poverty by going to school, getting a job, and deciding for themselves what is best for them.

But getting to that point means offering a vital leg up. Aid is one of the best tools to do so — it pays for the medication that frees a child to go to school and not look after a sick parent. It helps boost agricultural yields by giving tools, credit, and seeds to female farmers so they can pay for their child’s school fees and books. It allows people to live healthy lives and decide for themselves how they can lift themselves and their families out of poverty. When used well, aid addresses poverty, inequality, and hunger. It can tackle the root causes of poverty and act as a catalyst for change, as the white paper points out.

Of course, there are those who will question whether we should be assisting people in other countries at all.

Solidarity with the poor extends as far as national borders, the argument goes, especially when so many face hard times in our own country.

Nobody in the aid community questions that the Government’s priority should be creating jobs and a sustainable economy at home. But we must not forget those living in extreme poverty elsewhere. The problems faced by people in developing countries, of growing inequality and the concentration of resources in the hands of a few, are no differentto what is happening here. We have a common fight.

And it is one that is beginning to win out in the countries which Irish Aid — the Government’s aid arm — and NGOs have focused their work.

Since the launch of the first white paper by Irish Aid in 2006, the proportion of underweight children in Ethiopia has fallen by 10%, Irish Aid revealed yesterday. The number of households in Malawi receiving insufficient food is down 20%, while infant mortality in Tanzania has fallen from 96 per 1,000 births to 65. In Uganda, the number of children finishing primary school has risen 20% in two years. Poverty rates among ethnic minorities in Vietnam have fallen 17%, while the number of people receiving anti-retroviral treatment for HIV in Mozambique rose from 10,000 in 2004 to 218,000 in 2010.

Significant progress has been made in fighting poverty since the first white paper on aid seven years ago. However the changing face of poverty, characterised by a growing inequality of income in middle-income countries as well as poor ones, means we need new thinking on how to tackle it. This document provides us with a means to do so.

Calling for joined-up thinking, where governments in developing countries provide leadership, banks provide credit, the private sector supports jobs, and development partners such as Ireland provide technical expertise and fund innovation, the Irish people will be guaranteed the best value for money from their aid programme in the years ahead.

*Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland and chair of Dóchas, the umbrella group of Irish development agencies.

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