In budget cutting, how to make foreign aid less vulnerable

Current foreign aid models don't fit 21st-century needs, a World Bank report suggests. Ending people's fear of their own rulers – through better governance – is the key to development.

Americans are a generous lot in helping the world’s poor – otherwise why all the TV ads for foreign charities or so many personal mission trips to work in rural villages?

Yet they are stingy toward US foreign aid. They falsely assume it eats up 10 percent of the federal budget (it’s less than 1 percent) and then insist it be the first casualty in spending cuts.

Why this disconnect?

The World Bank, a leading global institution for development, may have an answer – and a solution – in its 2011 annual report, released Sunday. Simply put, private givers and rich nations have focused on the wrong type of aid in recent years.

Past practices of building up schools, roads, and water and health systems can be for naught if a country doesn’t first have better police, a credible justice system, antigraft campaigns, a focus on women, and – most of all – a government that works well with civilian groups that insist on accountability and transparency.

This call for a different aid emphasis, which is really about enabling citizens not to be afraid of their rulers, is in sync with the annual report on human rights issued Friday by the US State Department.

That report found a worrisome trend in rising repression of civil society activists, vulnerable minorities, and Internet users. Help societies end such repression and then “freedom from fear [will make] economies grow as citizens invest, innovate, and participate,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it.

No better example can be found of the need to put rights and security first than in the current uprising in the Middle East and North Africa. Many of those nations already have sufficient economic growth. Protesters are mainly demanding reform in rights, police, and corruption. Egypt’s emergency law and heavy-handed security apparatus, for example, were prime targets of the youth in Tahrir Square.

The United States, too, has had to learn in Afghanistan – after 10 years of conflict there – that building up local police and connecting local leaders to their citizens is the main bulwark against the Taliban.

The World Bank report points to success stories in Chile and East Timor where political frameworks were built up after repressive rule. Those countries included many political actors – before the country headed straight to elections whose results may not be accepted. It also cites Rwanda, Mozambique, and Ethiopia as examples of countries that developed civil institutions after violent conflicts.

One reason for the bank’s call for change is that the nature of conflicts has shifted. “Twenty-first century violence does not fit the 20th century mold,”the report states.

Now conflicts tend to be within borders rather than between countries, driven by ethnic strife, religious tensions, or organized crime like drug trafficking (as in Mexico and Guatemala). They also tend to spill over into other countries in the form of refugee flows or resource disruptions. The 9/11 attacks were in part a function of religious tensions within Saudi Arabia.

One grim statistic in the report is that a fifth of humanity now lives in places with repeated cycles of violence, making those countries far more likely to suffer poverty and hunger.

The 20th-century model of using diplomacy, armed peacekeeping, and aid to refugees either no longer works or isn’t enough. To really prevent conflict or rescue a country from it, the world must focus on building national institutions of governance, both public and private, with sustained aid over at least a generation, the World Bank recommends.

A long-term commitment for such tasks as training police is difficult for wealthy democracies. Sending food aid, creating clean water, or giving military aid is often an easier sell to voters.

Yet establishing rule of law and effective government are the best preventers of criminal violence and civil conflict, especially if they create the kind of economic growth that provides jobs to young people.

The World Bank itself doesn’t seem inclined to shift its loans and grants toward developing better security, governance, or justice in poor nations. Many of its client states don’t want money flowing to their political opponents. The bank instead points to the United Nations. But the UN’s record on aid is suspect. Its Millennium Development Goals for halving poverty by 2015 didn’t even mention reform of justice.

Breaking the cycle of violence in many countries needs a rethink of aid programs by the richer nations, and then better coordination between them. Private givers, too, can use this report to direct their money to the acute causes of conflicts.

Giving the poor a stake in their governments is the first step to giving them a better life.

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