Selling the case against foreign aid


Eleanor Sharman discusses effective ways to argue for a libertarian approach to foreign aid.

Most people reading this will be familiar with the arguments against foreign aid. And, what’s more, a good proportion will accept these arguments’ content; we know aid props up corrupt governments, is used to sponsor projects considered inhumane, takes the place of trade, fails to generate sustainable growth, etc., etc. The Backbencher itself has a number of persuasive and well-researched articles on the topic (e.g. here, here and here).

And yet, and yet. The political debate is almost won, and it isn’t by any of this rhetoric. Foreign aid – as evinced by Cameron’s pledge to increase its budget from £8 billion to £12.6 billion by 2015 – is still considered the responsible course of action. It’s still considered the ethical choice, and principled opposition to it is ranked alongside principled opposition to charitable giving. Those who oppose it are usually conceived of as jingoistic nationalists: clearly, they just don’t care about suffering people in developing countries. Clearly.

To an extent, there’s truth in this view. Foreign aid is often opposed because of a desire to put home affairs first. Helping other states is often seen as ‘none of our business’. But, evidently, there’s a lot more to be said on the matter. Indeed, libertarians frequently disagree with these approaches entirely. Either way, however, what’s increasingly important is that we learn how to make the case against foreign aid in terms that don’t come across as close-minded patriotism.

If that’s to be done, it’s about time we understood the opposition. The first thing to note is that, uncomfortable a realisation as it may be, we do all want the same thing – which is for developing countries to advance at a faster rate, and for the world’s poorest to have an improved standard of living. The buzzword, as ever, is ‘sustainable growth’. That’s something upon which we can all agree. The problem is that libertarians have a bad habit of getting too enthusiastic. This frequently manifests itself through our jumping around lauding sweatshops to the heavens, or forcibly demanding that everyone shop at Primark instead of Oxfam. We delight in how counter-intuitive this wisdom appears, because the argument is so convincing and revelatory – and, in doing so, we immediately alienate all prospective allies.

We delight in how counter-intuitive this wisdom appears, because the argument is so convincing and revelatory – and, in doing so, we immediately alienate all prospective allies.

What we actually need is an engagement on the other side’s own terms. We start by confessing our shared goal, rather than refusing to engage ‘because they’re wrong’. We discuss our shared belief that it is better for a struggling person to be employed than unemployed (goodness knows that point ought to resonate), and we move from there to proffering the spread of business as a solution to the problem. There’s nothing controversial about saying that trade generates wealth, nor that industry encourages economic growth. The difficult part is pointing out why these fantastic markets ought to come at the expense of foreign aid. Why, we are asked, can’t we have both?

It’s at this point that it would be easy to resign the debate. For many, foreign aid has become a sacred cow of sorts: because the Right oppose it so furiously, the Left are compelled to defend it at all costs; rather like the NHS and a welfare state, it’s become a symbol of the divide, and as such commands a ferocious defence. But this just means that any denial of foreign aid’s value must steer very clear of claims about its ethical status, and lodge firmly on the side of discussing its efficacy. And here a libertarian is on home territory: the links above provide a damning exegesis of how foreign aid is actually spent, how much of it reaches its targets, and how much of it is quietly absorbed into bureaucracy – or worse.

The argument to be made is not that foreign aid is wrong. Because it isn’t – or, at least, the principles behind it don’t seem to be. But, to quote Milton Friedman, one of the very greatest mistakes is to judge policies and programmes by their intentions rather than their results. And the results of foreign aid are frequently as far from desirable as it’s possible to get. It isn’t a question of ‘well, the aid must be misdirected, we just need to attach incentives’: these are an improvement for sure, but an improvement to a failing system probably still leaves a failing system. And, when there’s an alternative, there’s no excuse for propping such a system up. We all know what needs to be said; we all find it very difficult to say it. It’s far easier to shout from the sidelines, to condemn political opponents as fools because they don’t share our world-view. The point, however, is that we don’t need to share each others’ world-views here. Our aim is common. All that remains is to lose the stridence and, at last, engage.

Eleanor is a 19-year-old undergraduate at Oxford University.


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