The International Policy Network has recently published a damning critique of rights-based approaches to development, particularly as represented in the funding decisions of the UK’s Department for International Development.
Fake Aid concludes that:
- ‘The value of DfID’s ideological rights-based approach for alleviating poverty is unclear’
- ‘Even if DfID’s communications programmes succeed in spreading the view that people are entitled to certain services, there is scant evidence that declaring such rights actually improves conditions for the poor’
- ‘By insisting on ill-defined rights-based practices through its partnerships with other organisations (NGOs, public-private initiatives, and foreign governments), DfID risks stifling innovative methods of aiding development by imposing a uniform, unproven standard across the sector’
There is much that is useful in this report, and certainly several of these conclusions coincide with some of my own recent writing on development aid and human rights. However, the following observations would also seem appropriate:
- DFID is not alone in supporting rights based approaches to development – this view of ‘development’ has over the last 15 years gained an increasingly prominent position in global rhetoric. There is growing evidence that advocating rights actually has had little impact on delivering the needs of the poorest people in the world, and my own view is that we now need a fundamental rethink of human rights rhetoric and practice – not least to reflect the importance of communities and responsibilities. This is the theme of my forthcoming keynote to the EuroAfrica-ICT meeting in Brussels on 1st October
- Donors are increasingly encouraged to involve civil society organisations in dialogue and delivery – because they are seen as being more representative of the views of society at large. Only a relatively small percentage of DFID’s total aid budget is actually spent directly through the privileged NGOs to which Fake Aid refers – although this still accounts for a considerable amount of money (c. £140 million on communications activities by NGOs)
- It is crucial that DFID spends money on informing the British public about development issues. Fake Aid strongly criticises the fact that DFID spends £13 million a year on promoting awareness of aid within the UK. This criticism is misplaced. If DFID did not spend this money, understanding of development issues by the UK public would fall and as a result support for our contributions to global development would diminish. More importantly, it can be argued that the most legitimate way in which DFID can spend money is actually in the UK, influencing the views of the UK population – rather than using DFID’s budget to ‘interfere’ in other countries. If UK consumption patterns, policies towards world trade , economic activities and international military intervention were to change as a result of public opinion, then many of the world’s poorest people would become far better off than they do through our present system of providing funding through the form of budget support mechanisms to foreign governments.
- It is also dangerous to criticise all DFID’s funding of communications initiatives as though they had the same impact, as does the Fake Aid report. Much of DFID’s work in supporting the use of information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) over the last decade has indeed had significant impact on enhancing the lives of poor people, and this should be recognised. Indeed, it is a real shame that such funding has now diminished significantly, and DFID’s role from being a leader in this field has now fallen to it very much being an also ran – which is a real shame.
Fake Aid is a very valuable report – but its conclusions do need to be tempered by a critical reading.