I have just returned from visiting three of the world’s most fragile states, Rwanda, which is recovering from the well publicised genocide in the 1990s, when nearly a million people died; the DRC, known generally as the Congo, geographically bigger than Europe, where death, mass rapes and violence have been widespread, and Burundi, the world’s poorest country.
Following a recent policy review, DFID has prioritised fragile states, and certainly Rwanda and the DRC are regarded as priorities with both being budgeted for significant increases in the next few years. The policy review, however, announced the closure of the DFID office in Burundi, largely on the grounds that our operation was sub scale, and the existing programme has been sub-contracted to a non-profit making entity which helps facilitate the normalisation of trade in East Africa.
Many people in the UK are cynical about our efforts in the foreign aid and development field – criticism varies from the 'charity begins at home' argument, which criticises the decision to spend money abroad when we are facing cuts at home, to a cynical view based on the fear that our money in certain countries is going to corrupt dictators and their cohorts, and not to the poor in those countries.
This Government, like its predecessor, defends DFID's activities in a number of ways. The traditional argument is that of the 'moral compass', i.e. we are rich, they are poor, and it is our duty as civilised people to help. Recently an additional justification has been used – that it is in our interest to help these countries, on the understanding that improvising living conditions in countries will reduce religious fanaticism and terrorism as well as leading to a likely reduction in immigration to the UK.
Despite these arguments the Government’s commitment to increase spending on the DFID budget over the next few years from £7.8bn in 2010/11 to seeing 0.7% of Britain’s GDP to be provided as Aid by 2013, continues to face criticism. My own experiences on radio 'phone in' shows and reading comments in the press is that this difference in opinion between government and what the general public think is substantial. As Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail and LBC radio has commented, this is one where it would appear that public opinion is not at all compatible with the views of in Westminster. People separate their own philanthropic nature, as shown in our donations to disaster appeals, from our government’s activities in this field.
So, it was with these conflicting thoughts in mind that I went with the Select Committee on International Development to scrutinise DFID's activities in these three countries. The core question to me was this: are our taxpayers' monies making a real difference to the lives of people on the ground in such fields as basic health, education and nutrition? Or are we propping up corrupt regimes by putting in millions of pounds, with the best intention, to countries where governments control so much, that most is effectively skimmed off by the incumbent regime, and only small amounts get through to where they are intended? The latter argument is supported by many writers in the international development/foreign aid field, such as Dambisa Moyo, who argues that all international aid does is create further levels of corruption because of siphoning off to corrupt leaderships.
Andrew Mitchell, both in Opposition, and as Secretary of State, has asked for aid efficacy to be measured in 'outcomes', i.e. how many schools, how many hospitals etc, and I believe this to be the correct measure.
With this in mind I have to say that during my visit, I did see these outcomes and cold hard results obtained by our Aid and Development efforts. DFID predicts that as a result of its efforts and UK aid money, that by 2014 in Rwanda alone, one million bed nets will be provided, preventing the spread of malaria; 30,000 children will be educated; 60,000 births will be delivered by skilled personnel. This is not to be viewed cynically but as a real achievement on behalf of the UK and DFID in providing real tangible benefits to some of the poorest people in the world. No sunny side up smiles, no over the top altruism "look isn't it great" – just realistic beneficial measures in improving these people’s lives and this I feel should be applauded.
In Rwanda we visited a number of projects funded by DFID and run by NGOs, in this case rehabilitating genocide survivors who had have had family slaughtered, been raped or otherwise mutilated. The work seemed well run, providing a clinic, or helping to train people in farming techniques etc. Much of DFID's efforts however, go into big projects, such as land tenure regularisation, which is a massive programme of demarcation and registering land titles, which is very difficult post genocide, as refugees are returning and claiming land occupied by others.
The results are clear, over five million parcels of land have been demarcated, allowing security of ownership and providing conditions for long term increases in productivity. There are projects encouraging village groups to meet and encourage pressure on government to improve service delivery. There are also programmes aimed at providing steps out of poverty by helping with savings and credit mutuals, delivering community assets such as water pumps and rain water runoff channels. There is clear evidence that these schemes are helping reduce poverty, from a very low base. There is no doubt that Rwanda's GDP is growing and that our aid efforts are helping and making it a lot less of a fragile country.
However, it has to be said that DFID and our aid programmes do not go without criticism. The DRC is hugely more complex, as it is far less of a unified state, and there has been vicious sectarian fighting, private armies, mass rape and extortion much more recently. DFID funds a large range of projects, from road building to schools, health centres and clean water – all delivered under the most difficult circumstances. Results can be seen but DFID's targets are extremely ambitious, for example clean water for six million people, fifteen million protected from malaria, 372,000 more school children and 1,700 km of new roads.
This is fine and again I did see good results. However, a lot of effort is put in to governance programmes such as voter registration, which is expensive. The UK and others are funding a lot of the election costs. People seem to want to be registered; we saw evidence of voters walking for hours and queuing all day, just to get a voting identity card. However, in a country with almost no judicial system, no institutions of state, it has to be questioned whether all this money spent for an election which will probably be fixed, is worthwhile. The main argument in favour would appear to be that pressure for democracy will happen from the grass roots upwards, rather than top down. Time will tell.
Also, critically, I was very surprised at two aspects of the UK Government's activities. Firstly a complete lack of branding of the fact that it was the UK that was giving Aid. In nine days, seeing aid projects over thousands of miles, I only saw one sign that DFID's name appeared on, that simply included the words 'Financed by Department for International Development', with a list of other institutions. No flag, no logo, and no mention that it was the UK.
In my view, the importance of publicising the UK efforts is for the future. If these countries, as we hope, eventually develop out of poverty we need the population to realise the help we gave, to create an understanding of our values, our standards, and a climate of goodwill towards the UK. The intention would be to provide the basis for our business in the future. Currently, there seems to be a reluctance to 'blow our own trumpet'. This could be because DFID is a financing authority for other organisations, but surely we must have the right to publicise our efforts in our interest.
Secondly, there would appear to be no effort at all by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or DFID officials to get British business involved in these countries. In total we are exporting less than $35 million to these three countries combined.
They are clearly very difficult countries in which to work, and there is a prevailing fear of accusations of returning to the bad old days of 'tied aid', but as we are investing hundreds of millions of pounds of UK taxpayers' money, we should at least have some pro-active policy to get British companies involved in the tendering process for contracts funded by DFID, and have policy to expand general trade for UK companies. There are a few examples of this happening, for example PwC are involved in a contract to recruit and organise Police in the DRC, but these are few and far between. If the groundwork is laid now, when these countries, with our help, hopefully become more sophisticated economies, we would be in a good position get benefit back. I believe that in countries that are too small an economy for UKTI to be involved, our Embassy or High Commission should have a duty to promote their countries and our aid efforts to UK business.
Our government and DFID are doing an excellent job with tangible results. However, as Karin Landgren, the UN Special Representative in Burundi said "all the aid efforts are a gamble". She is right, but with outcomes carefully measured, and the alternatives too dreadful to consider, in my view, it is all a gamble worth taking and a gamble if applied correctly, will be in our benefit in the future.