by Rachel Cernansky
The UN held a summit on the Millennium Development Goals at the end of September to review the progress on eradicating poverty and hunger, combatting HIV/AIDS, achieving universal education, environmental sustainability, and gender equity.
There’s certainly merit to these goals and to the many international relief efforts seeking to lift people out of poverty. But there are also a number of flaws: How the MDGs are prioritized, publicized and funded, how aid is funded and distributed, and the overriding issue of transparency and accountability.
Where’s the Accountability?
As Bill Easterly, economist and one of the most outspoken critics of aid, has pointed out time and again, aid money is doled out with little to no accountability for how well it works. Organizations frequently tout how much money they raised more than quantify how they were able to improve lives.
A common response to this lack of accountability is that some help is better than no help, while many argue that is not true—for many reasons, the most basic being that it encourages a culture of dependency. In her book, “Dead Aid,” former World Bank economist Dambisa Moyo calls aid “an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster.” A Washington Times review of Moyo’s book sums up her point: “The open aid spigot encourages the worst governmental irresponsibility.”
The Center for Global Development frames another criticism this way: “Unpredictable aid further complicates management and coordination of fiscal and monetary policy, and reduces whatever fragile confidence of small private investors in future relative prices responsible governments are trying to achieve.” Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda has said, “foreign aid is an ineffective instrument that distorts recipients’ incentives for the worse.”
Distributed through a frequently top-down approach, people’s well-intentioned dollars are often spent on ineffective programs or efforts that are never even accepted or welcome at the local level. In a debate about aid for Africa a few years ago, economist and president of the Free Africa Foundation George Ayittey, pleaded for a change in this pattern: "if you want to help Africa, folks, please, for Pete’s sake, ask the Africans what they want. Don’t assume that you know better than the Africans."
The top-down approach to mobilization and development, according to the World Resources Institute, “rests on the assumption that people need to be told how to “participate” in centrally planned development activities.” There is little room to ask for, or integrate, feedback from the populations who will be affected by aid programs.
Easterly wrote in a Council on Foreign Relations debate, “Top-down planning by experts remains a favorite approach, as embodied in the World Bank/International Monetary Fund Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers… despite years of experience that shows planners at the top don’t have enough feedback from the poor, incentives for implementation, or accountability for results to make the plans work.”
Cultural sensitivity is not a priority for many international aid groups—but ignoring the needs, desires, and know-how of local populations is not only inefficient, it is often counterproductive to both the group’s mission and to the community’s well-being.
Local skills, industries, and infrastructure are also, in many cases, undermined—secondhand clothes donations to Africa have wiped out local textile industries. And by sending millions of dollars to foreign governments with no check on how well it funnels through government officials to the people it is intended for, economic disparity often increases.