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Aiding and abetting: rewriting the rules of giving

If there was ever a moment to redefine the meaning of international aid, it is now. The population of Africa is now greater than the entire developed world combined. There has never been a more compelling moment to challenge the diseased philosophy of moralised giving that sits at the heart of our Big Charity and Big Aid industries, and reach out decisively to a future of global prosperity. 

It was in support of this mission that I accompanied Theresa May last month on the trade trip to Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, and saw first-hand the great scale and power of the entrepreneurial drive in these countries. To unlock this great wave of human creativity will be to sweep away all entrenched disadvantage that has gone before it. But to get there, every person must be considered an equal partner in the developing world economy: empowered to learn and empowered to earn.

To achieve this, we do not need an aid industry. We need a nation-building and partnership-building industry (with clearly ring-fenced emergency relief capability) focused on three things:  empowering institutions; empowering investment and capital markets; and empowering infrastructure, trade and communications. Above all, we need an industry where donor nations work with recipients to understand, and plan, exactly how this prosperity and stability will be measurably achieved by each project or contract.

From these things, and the compound benefits of improved health and education systems they enable, flow the positive effects of business. Today, the only way out of poverty for 750 million of the “lost” people of the world who remain in absolute poverty is through empowering the private sector. Yet today, Big Charity – as it exists in our flawed construction – must be free of the muddying influence of business, or returns, or anything that resembles best business practices. Its people must be good people. And because abusive, greedy or manipulative people cannot exist in Big Charity, robust systems to do not exist to prevent or exorcise unsavoury occurrences. Its impact, where measured, is always good, because the alternative is always considered worse.

Big Charity should exist to be effective – not to be moral. Any morality it can claim must come from the systems of sustained empowerment by which it strengthens the vulnerable, generation by generation. The deceit of this confusion – and the hypocrisy we sustain as a nation and as policymakers in continuing to peddle it – is the reason why our aid-giving institutions will only ever perpetuate dependency, inefficacy, and abuse.

Our government – feeding this psyche with £13bn a year – has locked into place an ecosystem of aid that begins with the domestic political attractiveness of aid to the donating public; establishes bid mechanisms for which charities must adjust their work on the ground to fit the politically attractive criteria; plays out the narrative through our media; and finally, closing the virtuous loop, plays this back through our foreign office to establish our irreproachable role on the international stage.

To achieve sustainable growth and development, decision-makers in developing African countries need the means to make sound socio-economic decisions and promote effective systems of governance. Our government must harness the UK’s wealth of private sector expertise to drive this change, helping London step forward and take its place decisively as the global capital of international development and development finance.