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Editorial: Smart aid feeds the hungry

We have come a long way since Bob Geldof harangued governments for inaction

The IF campaign to end world hunger can inspire two responses. How nice that we British mean so well. And: what, again? Of these, the first is the right response, even if it needs to be tempered by some of the scepticism and experience of the second.

To his credit, David Cameron made this argument rather well in his speech yesterday. He said: "There are those who ask whether aid really works." That is a good question, and his answer was to point to "the progress that economic growth and smart aid has driven". Of these, it has to be said that economic growth is by far the more important. Liberal capitalism has been the best anti-poverty programme in human history. The free market in China and better governance in south Asia and Africa have made the past 20 years the most economically successful period ever for the world's poor. In Bangladesh, for example, "extreme" poverty has been halved and is set to be eliminated in another 20 years' time. It is a shame that so little progress on further freeing trade will be made in the series of international jamborees leading up to the G8 summit next week.

However, the Prime Minister is also right to say that "smart aid" has helped many of the poorest to help themselves. His careful choice of words is a welcome admission that "stupid aid" has been worse than useless, and a warning that governments and charities must learn from the past. It may seem that we have made no progress since Live Aid in 1985, but, although some of that effort was misdirected, most of it was useful and we now know much more about the kind of aid that works: above all, education and women's education in particular.

The test for the IF campaign is whether it has learnt those lessons. The evidence is mixed. Its objectives seem confused. Its first is to "clamp down on tax dodging", which is a laudable aim but it has nothing to do with world poverty. Indeed, it may be damaging to that cause because it implies that it could be funded out of a magic pot of free money. Efficient and fair taxation is a matter of justice between taxpayers, in that taxes lost in one place have to be made up elsewhere. International agreements to discourage countries undercutting each other's tax rates and to minimise the use of tax havens are desirable but complicated. They are unlikely to yield large sums of money, and even if they did, there would be many other calls on the funds.

That is why Mr Cameron was right to restate the case for aid in its own terms and in competition with the other demands on public money. Aid can make a difference, but not if we are as starry-eyed about it as IF comes close to being. Its second aim is: "Help poor countries make sure that everyone, especially children, have enough nutritious food to eat and support poor families to grow their own food." As Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, says today, "If this was a small thing of just 'give some money and this child will be fed', it would have been done by now."

We have come a long way since Live Aid, when Bob Geldof harangued governments for not doing enough. Since then, many governments – including those of developing countries – have learned the lessons, said the right things and promised action. Now we must hold them to it.

But we must also hold the aid charities to a higher standard of proof that private donations are promoting sustainable economic growth.