The 2005 G8 Summit at Gleneagles, Scotland, promised a lot of debt relief, aid and other benefits, particularly for Africa. However, though the media reported a lot on the amazing sounding deals there was much less said on the use of fancy accounting and spin by G8 leaders in their declarations. Due to the 2005 G8 Summit’s prominence and the massive global public pressure at the time, a number of people have asked one year on whether there has been any positive progress.
However, some may wonder that surely they would say positive things would they not? After all, highlighting as many positives as possible reduces criticism.
Authors and critics of global foreign aid programs such as economics professor, William Easterly, feel that many of these are large, top-down driven programs which are doomed to fail. In some regards, he is quite convincing. In his book, The White Man’s Burden; Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done So Much Ill and so Little Good (Penguin Press, 2006), Easterly suggests that instead, smaller more targetted steps should be taken, where accountablility is based on results, not in inputs (such as how much debt is cancelled, how much aid is given, etc.) He suggests free markets are the way though he does concede that the shock therapy kind of free market imposition as witnessed in the former Soviet Union is top-down and disastrous (he consulted and promoted such steps with the World Bank before realizing this was not helpful).
However, perhaps Easterly too is being oversimplistic? For example, as Oxfam also notes,
That Zambia was able to provide free health care after debt cancellation suggests that some aspects of top down or aid through governments are important. However, as the OECD warns, when looking at aid in the form of government budget support, it requires political will from the recipient government and only when present, can be successful:
But many reasons to be concerned about poor progress
Where pessimism from Easterly seems warranted is because so many recipient governments appear not to have this will, or accountabilty. What Easterly also argues, (and, as he also notes, so do many organizations and aid charities that are critical of rich country government aid/debt relief programs) is that the donors themselves are often unaccountable. What if they do not deliver on their promise? What if they (as has often been the case) knowingly lend to corrupt governments, or sell them arms, or in some way, make things worse? Where is their accountability?
Oxfam is also critical of some of the progress by G8 countries. Noting that after the July 2005 Summit much of the time since has involved intense wrangling over the details by the rich countries. Some rich countries and the World Bank and IMF themselves have made a number of attempts to water down the deal. For example,
In order to save money, the World Bank deal now only covers debts up to the end of 2003 [rather 2004, which was initially agreed]; a stroke of the pen costing poor countries $5 billion in debts that will not now be cancelled;
Many massively indebted countries still remain excluded from the deal;
Countries are still subject to what are generally considered as harmful economic conditions in return for the debt relief;
There is no recognition of the illegitimate origins of much of this debt in irresponsible lending such as debt incurred by unelected leaders in the 1980s. For example, the current South African government is paying back billions lent to the former Apartheid regime.
A deal at the 2005 Summit promised increased aid. Although 2005 aid levels did increase accordingly, 80% of that increase is made up of one-off debt cancellation deals for Iraq and Nigeria—it is not actually new money in the fight against poverty. Together these two deals add up to $17 billion of the $21 billion increase.
Technical assistance from rich countries is often expensive, and counted as part of the aid. The World Bank calculates that just one day’s consultancy costs can pay a teacher’s salary for a year.
What is the effect of this fancy accounting by rich country governments? Oxfam summarizes:
It is worth quoting Oxfam again on the examples and dangerous effects of disingenuous double-counting:
(This site’s section on foreign aid goes into more depth, looking at issues around the aid numbers vs. the aid promises, the quality/effectiveness of aid, and more.)
As Easterly has strongly criticized, given these and other concerns, making poverty history will likely not come from rich country governments, or even publicized concerts by celebrities, though the latter may indeed importantly help raise awareness.
Furthermore, as many argue, trade is equally, if not more important than, aid and debt relief because these latter forms of assistance are short term measures, but trade is the way towards long term prosperity. International policies and forums are typically dominated by the bigger, richer countries, often defending their own interests. This is understandable in some regards, but that is often accompanied by spin about how their preferred measures are beneficial for the poor. A major World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong, December 2005, proved to be unsuccessful for developing countries attempting to get rich countries to remove their long-standing barriers to trade, as described in further detail on this site (see previous link).
And how successful has that raised awareness been in a mainstream sense? It seems that the mainstream media only provides increased attention when rich governments meet or say something (e.g. one year on from the G8 2005 Summit when leaders are to meet again, then these issues and concerns have resurfaced). Where is that similar level—or more—media attention when the poor suffer throughout the year?
Again, media attention and programming seems driven less by the concerns and challenges of the poor (though that does not deny they have concerns, for their programming on such topics—when it happens—can be very good), but by following and reporting on rich country governments. The poor do not seem to exist, or the rich do not recognize them. And the rich seem to dictate how the poor will get out of poverty.
Are such grand promises by the G8 and others doomed for failure, and is it pointless trying to pressure them to do anything?
This criticism of the media might be a bit harsh or cynical, but this raising of awareness, public concerts and so forth have been going on for decades. This is where critics such as Easterly have a potent point:
While both the likes of Easterly and of Oxfam are critical of large grandiose promises that have not been delivered, there are also some differences. While organization such as Oxfam continue to pressure rich country governments on various fronts, Easterly believes that misses the point as they insist on still trying to go the top-down route and trying to get the rich governments to be more honest and direct programs via poor country governments. Instead, smaller programs targetted directly at individuals and peacemeal reforms are the way, he feels.
Easterly’s argument is persuasive, but sometimes appears not to take the power and influence of rich counties and multinationl corporations in mind, as these have the influence on the global system and instead he feels those entities are well-intentioned but misguided if they think they can solve problems from the outside.
There is probably an element of truth in all views, but many people from previously colonized countries will remember their long histories, and might be skeptical. As noted throughout this site, the powerful have always tried to maintain their interest and position of power. A view occassionally heard in the western mainstream media by critics of African governments is that some do not want to help fight poverty because their position of power will be weakened by more democracy, more development, etc. Yet, rarely do we hear similar concerns about rich countries’ relationship to the rest of the world. (See J.W. Smith’s writings at the Institute for Economic Democracy for more in-depth information on this perspective, for example.)
Yet others may argue that it is not necessarily these Planners (Easterly’s term to describe those proposing top-down policy prescriptions) actively seek to keep the poor in poverty; they may be well-intentioned, but their education, culture, society, whatever, is geared towards perpetuating the existing system, so they cannot think outside of that framework of orientation (a term coined by J.W. Smith). The pressures of globalization affect both rich and poor nations, and so can (understandably) drive people that are in a position of power to follow the bad policies that we actually do see them pursue in foreign affairs.
The authoritative Assistant Director of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge, Professor Ha-Joon Chang, for example, looks at the historical context, and just as J.W. Smith and others have noted, finds that today’s rich countries developed using different policies than those typically prescribed to today’s poor countries:
Chang also notes that German economist Friedrich List had analyzed the political system in his classic work, The National System of Political Economy (1841), and observed that even the rise of Britain, the hero of free trade and the free-market economy, was actually characterized by protecting infant industries. Chang comments that,
Chang is looking at development from the perspective of international trade while Easterly is focused on development from the perspective of internal market development. Chang is therefore implying that for the kind of developments needed locally, international actions do have an impact. Easterly feels that international actions are misguided, though well-intentioned, while Chang sees historical calculation and power acting to conspire against development.
It is likely we will never know which views are correct, and there is perhaps a mixture of reasons; a mixture of bumbling mistakes, calculated statecraft, poor execution by some developing countries, and lack of opportunities for the poor, etc.
It would seem that continued global action and pressure is needed on G8 countries and international institutions, with a view to make effective aid, debt relief, etc realistic, because some progress is no doubt already being realized. But those implementing that delivery and those looking to use freed resources effectively are perhaps wise to heed Easterly’s warnings and concerns, too.