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Paul Vallely: Aid and what the Archbishop should have said

Don't believe everything you read in the papers – our development budget doesn't cost us much but it makes a world of difference

Those naughty people at the New Statesman. Apparently when the Archbishop of Canterbury arrived to do his week as guest editor he was planning to write the main editorial on aid to Africa. But Rowan Williams was persuaded to offer, instead, his thoughts on the state of the coalition government one year in. The paper got the headlines it wanted but we have been deprived of his thoughts on the place we used to call the dark continent. So what might he have said? And why does it matter?

World leaders will gather tomorrow in London at the invitation of David Cameron to discuss the £2.3bn shortfall in money promised to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation for its work over the next five years. Without that money many children will needlessly die, despite the fact that new vaccines have been developed against two of the main killers of children – diarrhoea and pneumonia.

This is not merely a matter of holding world leaders to their promises. A new mood is abroad, particularly in the backwoods of the Conservative Party, abetted by a series of irresponsible pieces of journalism in the Daily Mail. The whole business of giving aid is being questioned, particularly at a time when public spending is being drastically cut. Siren voices are sounding that aid is a futile business which, far from alleviating poverty, has actually made things worse in places such as Africa, creating dependency and propping up corrupt despots.

The Archbishop might have begun by unpacking this collection of clichéd untruths. He might have said such stereotypes are outdated. True, aid was dished out to dictators at the height of the Cold War, by both the West and the Soviets, happy to fund anyone who fulfilled Franklin D Roosevelt's definition that "he may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch". But the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Aid has been much more poverty-focused since.

He might have turned his scholarly attention to the dodgy journalism which runs headlines that misrepresent a private discussion paper as the view of the International Monetary Fund. Or which quotes oddball critics of aid such as Dambisa Moyo – or her predecessors in dissent Peter Bauer and William Easterly – as though they represented some new orthodoxy when in fact the overwhelming majority of development economists know that, in the right circumstances, aid works.

Discovering those circumstances is what development has been about for the past three decades. African governments have been persuaded to introduce greater accountability to fight corruption, and macro-economic policies that promoted growth and inward investment. The West too has had to learn – when it was best to target aid through general government budget support, when to channel it through individual ministries, and when through private charities where politicians are corrupt.

We had to learn what to demand in return for aid – end to conflicts; cutting spending on armies and increasing it on schools and clinics; enshrining private property rights; cutting over-regulation to help local entrepreneurs and attract investors; promoting free trade within Africa; and helping the poor to participate in economic growth. In recent years smarter aid has been producing smarter results.

The results are clear to all but cynics. Aid has put 46 million kids into school in the past two decades. It has cut the number of children who die before their fifth birthday by four million. It has increased medicines for Aids tenfold.

In economic terms the average return on the investment of aid in Africa exceeds 20 per cent, the World Bank says. Robert Cassen, in his magisterial study Does Aid Work? – which The Economist called "the most exhaustive study of aid ever undertaken" and "the standard reference on the subject" – showed that all serious analysis reveals that most aid succeeds and obtains a reasonable rate of return. And it has improved year on year since then. As John Major, no bleeding heart Live Aider, said last week, aid is amongst the best value of any spending by the British government. Perhaps the truth is just too dull for our poujadiste press and politicians.

But Rowan Williams is a moral philosopher rather than an economist. So he might next have turned his attention to why it is that some people continue to peddle such outdated stereotypes, ignorant half-truths and cynical dishonesties – in the face of the overwhelming evidence. Fond of psychology, he might have suggested this animus is rooted in a search for a conscience-salving excuse for meanness on behalf of those who decline to put their hand in their pocket when international disaster occurs.

What he probably would not have done was got all religious and started quoting the Bible, though it has some fine lines on smugness and rank hypocrisy. Notwithstanding the modern church's obsession with sexuality, the vast bulk of biblical woe is reserved for the rich and those who benefit from exploitative trading practices which "trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth". The sin of Sodom, contrary to the contemporary obsession with penetration, was, Ezekiel said, "pride, surfeit of food and prosperous ease, but not [aiding] the poor and needy". Hardening your heart was the great Old Testament sin.

The history of aid is littered with broken promises. David Cameron, to his great credit, has stuck to the pledge to deliver 0.7 per cent of Britain's GDP in aid. We will not balance the books at the expense of the poorest people on earth, he said. Good on him. Quizzed in the street the public, fuelled by a disproportionately sceptical media, typically guess that aid accounts for somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of the nation's budget. But it is nowhere near that. It is just over a halfpenny out of every pound we earn. If we were to cancel the aid budget entirely it would make small dent in the overall British deficit.

Those who ask "why is Ethiopia so poor after all the aid we've given" have no conception of the base level of poverty from which people begin when they subsist on £1.50 a day. Nor do they do the maths which shows that £1.43trn in aid over the last five decades works out at about £5.30 a person per year for our planet's poorest. Most people in the world are poor beyond our imagining and we give them each about 1.5p a day. The editor of the Daily Mail, with its irrational aversion to aid, by contrast, earns £4,383 a day – not counting his bonus, which takes him up to £7,671 a day.

So tomorrow, the Archbishop of Canterbury might have concluded, when David Cameron and Co meet in London they should get their priorities right – and find the money that is needed for worldwide vaccinations against pneumonia and diarrhoea which between them cause nearly 40 per cent of all childhood deaths.

Aid to save children is one of the greatest success stories of the last century. Whatever the cynics tell you.