Politics dictates UK bilateral aid review

It must be about a year ago that I took a call from a posh-sounding Londoner who said that she was acting on behalf of the Ethiopian embassy.

I was politely informed that the content of the OneWorld Ethiopia Guide did not accurately reflect its subject. Would I care to amend passages describing the political regime of prime minister Meles Zenawi?

I’m told that this branch of the public relations business is known as “reputational management.” Mr Zenawi and his government must comfortably qualify for the industry equivalent of frequent flyer privileges.

Our Guide did no more than lay out facts that were well established. Longstanding reluctance of Ethiopia’s ruling party to contemplate political freedoms culminated in an unfairly conducted 2005 election, followed by killings of protesters and long prison sentences for opposition leaders.

Subsequent years of oppression impeded the functioning of civil society and independent media, leading to an October 2010 report by Human Rights Watch with the damning title: Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia.

If reputation consultants are paid by results, then the plummy lady on my phone is surely now sipping bacardis in Barbados.

Barely six months since that HRW verdict, the UK government’s Bilateral Aid Review lined up Ethiopia to become its largest beneficiary country within the next two years. The figure promised exceeds $500 million per annum, worth almost 10% of government spending.

As it happens, due to shortage of funding we’ve had to drop the governance content from all OneWorld country briefings, concentrating on poverty, food and climate change. I’m not really qualified to assess the latest political risk of engagement in Ethiopia.

But I can observe that it is just one of a lengthy list of potential banana skins lurking in the aid proposals published by the UK coalition government on 1st March. More to the point, the review chooses to omit any reference to these very considerable risks.

The International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has a tough hand to play in delivering the government’s admirable resolve to lift foreign aid to 0.7% of national income.

Almost isolated in handling an expanding budget, Mitchell must feel like the goody-goody schoolboy who wishes he could be punished so that he can join the gang of bad boys, dishing out savage cuts in government services.

To put it another way, one small slip in handling $14 billion of candy and he’s heading for a fall. Surely it would be wise to start talking up those risks.

Dragooned into the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, Mitchell has been forced to commit 30% of his budget to support “fragile and conflict-affected states.” Tripling humanitarian aid to Somalia will “make Britain safer,” is the new mantra.

This “securitisation” of aid threatens to undermine Mitchell’s other political imperative. In the current economic climate, he cannot risk a headline on wasteful aid spending.

The review is accordingly stuffed with reassurances about value-for-money, an outcome not normally associated with working in conflict regions and failed states. Afghanistan, Burma and Somalia occupy the bottom three positions in the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, with Sudan not far ahead.

Desperation to satisfy the value-for-money agenda has inspired a bullet-pointed ministerial press release which reads like the production targets of a 1950s Soviet command economy. Instead of tons of steel we have millions of vaccinated children and other media-friendly “results”.

The comparison may seem odious but, just as the steel was worthless without a market context, so the vaccinations are insufficient to improve children’s lives without a functioning health infrastructure. There is a risk that UK Aid could meet all its targets without reducing the need for future aid.

An over-simplistic presentation of aid effectiveness also skates over the inconvenient truth that accountability for projects in developing countries is increasingly shared with other major donors or with the receiving government itself.

For example, aid for education is often paid direct to the ministry to supplement the local education budget. This approach correctly aligns responsibility or aggravates implementation risk, depending on your point of view.

A more rounded picture might have emerged if Andrew Mitchell had followed his own stipulation that all new projects for UK Aid must make a “Business Case.”

The business case for the overall aid budget is that nudging countries along the development path leads to greater global economic activity and less need for foreign aid. Like any business plan, a risk analysis is generally a good idea.

Indeed a risk-aware approach might have discouraged the minister from launching his aid review at the height of crisis in the Arab world, when the risks of supporting repressive regimes were so painfully exposed.

There are even some uncanny parallels between Libya and our old friends in Ethiopia. Like Libya, Ethiopia is perceived by western powers as tough on terror and, like Gaddafi, prime minister Zenawi was a Blair-buddy, invited to chair the Commission for Africa.

Andrew Mitchell comes across as a good man, deserving of the luck that all politicians need. At stake is the final step up for UK foreign aid spending to the full 0.7%, budgeted for 2013/14. I fear his plans contain just too many hostages to fortune for this promise to survive the political jungle.

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this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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