The Aid System- Is It Broken?


Aid in the popular media has been portrayed as a noble endeavour with the honourable aim of achieving the appropriate society in which rights would be enjoyed through financial investment. This is the image that we, the public, have faith in. However, beneath this picture that we, regrettably, may call a façade, is a more grim reality that must be explored.

The conventional representation of developing countries, arguably, is manipulated, fabricated and misleading. The classic illustration of this is Africa; Win (2007) points out that ‘the development industry has thrived on the stereotypical image of an African woman who is its “target” or “beneficiary”’. This is a fundamental issue that I may link to my opening statement; that aid, even in its most benevolent form, is seen as an investment. This dehumanises the process and its recipients. Here, Hancock’s (1989) shocking analogy of ‘Africa… [as] a continent-sized beggar hopelessly dependent on the largesse of outsiders’ begs us to ask whether even the basic notion of imagery- even before any official aid has been shipped off- has caused the system to be irreversibly ‘broken’ .

To further explore the idea of ‘dead’ aid, Dambisa (2009) compares contemporary aid to the Marshall plan and draws from it some lessons we can learn today. Firstly, Europe was not entirely dependent on aid; it never accounted for more than 3% of GDP whilst 15% of Africa’s GDP is aid. This reliance on the zeitgeist of charity in donor countries creates a far greater tone of uncertainty as the knock on effects of economic instability of the developed nations is startlingly magnified (Lensick and Morrissey 2000, cited in McColloch 2009). A current example that I found relevant is India; Glennie (2010) points out that ‘the main criticism of aid to India is that India doesn’t need it. But that is exactly the reason why it can work well’. India’s reduced reliance, perhaps, allows aid to be directed to ‘life changing’ development on the ground.

A second significant difference outlined was that the Marshall Plan was finite whilst ‘Africa is fundamentally kept in its perpetual childlike state’ and ‘African governments view aid as a permanent, reliable, consistent source of income’ (Dambisa 2009). For me, this view (if true) illustrates the continuation of a colonial, blinkered view of the Northern “prerogative” of maintaining “the rest”. This creates a ‘dangerous’ ‘moral tone’ for the future of aid (Hancock 1989). However, this argument is not universal; official Christian Aid policy is that “aid alone will never end poverty, so we’d like to see DFID implement a credible exit strategy from aid”’ (Hilary 2012). Perhaps the view of the necessity of endless aid is held in the public eye only… those in the business recognise the futility of over-reliance on distant sustenance. A prime example of this, for me, would be in Botswana where they ‘vigorously pursued numerous market economy options… Botswana succeeded by ceasing to depend on aid’ (Dambisa 2009).

A final way in which I see the aid system to be ‘broken’ is its ineffective, corrupt nature. Dambisa (2009) outlines the ‘micro-macro paradox’ in which a short term intervention (a Hollywood star sending 100,000 mosquito nets) may have few discernible, sustainable long-term benefits. Worse still, it can unintentionally undermine whatever fragile change for sustainable development may already be in play; the African mosquito-net maker whose relatives depend on his income is out of business. For me, this approach is parallel to the defective colonial image of short term material aid.

In terms of corruption (a concept increasingly prevalent in the media) Adis’s (2009) example in which ‘recent allegations of the politicization of foreign assistance to Ethiopia, including humanitarian food aid’ were common yet denied by the secretary of state for international development, was particularly striking. It raises the question of whether donor states and organisations are aware of incidences of corruption but their pressure to meet quotas outweighs their moral compass.

To conclude I agree with that Hancock’s (1989) idea that ‘if the statement “aid works” is true… then aid’s job should be done by now and it ought to be possible to begin a gradual withdrawal’. However, in the majority of cases this is clearly not true and it would be irresponsible of donor countries to do so. From this we may take away lessons from the history of aid, reflect on the flaws of its structure and aims and either ‘fix’ our approach to aid or shape our safe departure.

Ababa, Adis (2009) as cited in Newsnight (2011) ETHIOPIA billions of dollars of development aid as a tool for political oppression [online]. Available: [10th November 2012]

Barder, Owen (2010) ‘Beneath the Appeal: Modestly Saving Lives’, Open Democracy

Glennie, Jonathan (2008) The Trouble with Aid: Why Less Could Mean More for Africa, London: Zed Books.

Glennie, Jonathan (2010) If India Doesn’t need aid, why do foreign governments still give it? Guardian.

Hancock, Graham (1989) Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business, New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

Hilary, John (2012) Christian Aid seeks ‘exit strategy’ from aid, Progressive development Forum.

McColloch, Neil (2009) Aid Under Pressure: Support for Development Assistance in a Global Economic Downturn, IDS

Moyo, Dambisa. Dead aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Win, Everjoice (2004) ‘Not very poor, powerless or pregnant: The African woman forgotten by development’, IDS Bulletin Vol 35(4): 61-64.

Images from:
‘Making it work’
‘poverty still has a woman’s face’


One response »

  1. Another very interesting post, that is well researched and has a lot of good points and examples. The same improvers apply as to your previous posts: structure needs a little attention, making your argument flow a little more smoothly. Referencing & hyperlinking the web sources into the text. And in this post I noticed that you have a semi-colon habit that needs some fixing. Semi-colons are a bit like commas in that they hold together a sentence, but they function more like full stops, separating out complete sentences and arranging them so they’re still connected – by a breath, not by a longer pause. Use them sparingly, and correctly. Go through your post and tidy up the formatting, including correcting the formatting on the references (check the guide I sent you), so it all looks neat. These small things make a big difference to how professional your work looks.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s