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When Aid Works and Why

Friday 12 April 2013

Sudanese girlsLast weekend a group of religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Westminster and me, wrote a letter urging G8 nations to stick to their targets on foreign aid. Some have opposed this call by suggesting that most aid money gets wasted or sucked up by corruption, and that developing countries are much better helped by growing trade.

These criticisms are important and at one level I don't dispute them. Economic growth is undeniably the key to removing nations from poverty. In fact I have been and continue to be involved in seeking to promote trade with Nigeria – especially from areas of deprivation in the UK – for this very reason. At the same time, no one can deny the existence of corruption and the fact that money has been wasted as a result. This is why, in our letter, we backed Britain’s call for national governments to be more transparent.

But so often the critics ignore the many instances where aid truly works – especially in vulnerable conflict and post-conflict situations. Certainly that was what I saw during more than a decade of working in Africa.

When money is put in the hands of faith-based and civil society networks, it can be utterly transformative. Because these organisations are highly accountable, very little money is lost to corruption. Local clergy know exactly what their communities need and how to spend funds wisely.

During decades of war in Sudan, the Episcopal Church of Sudan led a teaching programme to ensure that children continued to receive some kind of education – often under trees in the countryside. Since 2007, they have received around £3.4 million of UK Aid funds which they have used to train thousands of teachers. With less than one per cent of girls in South Sudan completing secondary education, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this work.

One example from my personal experience illustrates the big difference that a local priest can make.

When I was Dean of Liverpool, the Cathedral supported a priest with a gift of $5,000. He spent this on training in reconciliation which helped transform the divided community he worked in. Every cent was accounted for, and the impact was significant. Scale that up across a country and it may be a few millions, but it will transform. Add some equally targeted money for local education in church schools, training for farmers, basic equipment - and you change a society.

I too object to any wastage of taxpayers’ money. When our troops were sent into Sierra Leone in 2000, they were of course enormously effective in helping sort out a crisis. But a military initiative of that kind costs millions of taxpayers’ money. Far smaller sums, invested earlier, have enabled nations to avoid conflict, and hence avoid the costs and dangers of sending in our armed forces.

I always think it’s like the difference between vaccinating someone and treating the full-blown disease. Skipping the injection may save you three pounds per person, but the moment they start getting rushed through the hospital doors that amount starts multiplying many times over.

Not all aid is good, but not all aid is dead. The way it is delivered may indeed be an issue, but the principle should not be.

That’s why ultimately these criticisms fail to satisfy me – either on an ethical level, or on a practical, value-for-money level. They ignore the transformative impact that aid can and does have in fragile countries struggling to meet basic human needs – an impact which can transform local communities and help all of us in the long run.

Author: Justin Welby

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