First came a report revealing terrible human rights abuses from a repressive regime backed by huge sums of British aid. A young girl spoke of having hot coals poured on her belly because her father was suspected of opposing the government; a teacher told of being stabbed in the eye as punishment for refusing to preach propaganda; there was talk of gang rape and electric shock torture.
Amnesty International said thousands of Oromo people in Ethiopia were targeted in a crackdown on “real or imagined dissent” – yet Britain handed more than £1bn in five years to this Stalinist state as its security forces ran amok. I have heard similar shocking stories from rape and torture victims left baffled by British support for the regime.
Next came a scathing critique from the official aid watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, slamming British donations for fuelling corruption in Africa and Asia. For all the sanctimonious talk of saving the world, it pointed out that almost nothing was done to stop the graft that makes life such a misery for so many of the planet’s poor. The body had to make the mind-boggingly obvious point that pouring cash into corrupt government systems is “highly problematic”.
These devastating indictments highlight the core charges against the arrogant and bloated aid industry: that it can do more harm than good by fuelling corruption, stunting democracy and supporting repression. It is increasingly hard not to wonder if even the title of the Department for International Development is some kind of grotesque irony, such is the wilful way it ignores the corrosive damage caused by its self-serving policies.
These issues are thrown into harsh light by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Covering the crisis in Liberia, I was surprised to be told that the Nobel prize-winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, so admired in the West, was less popular than her predecessor, Charles Taylor, who is serving a life sentence for hideous war crimes. One key reason was the country’s rampant corruption, branded the worst in the world, creating mistrust of officials that reduced the impact of public health warnings when the virus struck.
An inquiry by British MPs last month discovered that of £19m given by the EU last year to the Liberian health ministry, only £2.5m reached its destination. Not one penny was passed on this year. The EU – handed £1.23bn from the British aid budget – knew this provoked debate in Monrovia, but remained silent, while no one bothered to brief the relevant DfID minister. Presumably such sums are small change when trying to shell out £10.3bn in a year.
Sierra Leone, also scarred by systemic corruption and poor governance, was placed bottom of one international barometer of bribery. Yet aid again poured in. British officials declared the success of a costly project to fund free healthcare for pregnant women and young children, despite evidence of drugs being sold on, patients forced to pay bribes, and the collapse of an online procurement system due to minimal internet access. A scandal last year over missing vaccination funds reached up to the top levels of government.
The nation is bottom of a global index on governance of public health published today by the Legatum Institute – yet Ebola challenges Western aid models as much as weak African health systems. Now we see the same charities that serve as cheerleaders for flawed development concepts launch an emotive Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, backed by their BBC soulmates. In the first two days, these aid groups raised an impressive £4m. Yet just like global institutions and Western governments, they were disturbingly slow to respond to an epidemic that broke out last year; even this appeal has only been launched, after much prevarication, four months after the outbreak’s awful scale became apparent.
Médecins Sans Frontières was a lonely voice pleading for international help, as its teams built the biggest treatment centres in its history; still they had to hand out hundreds of thousands of hygiene kits to infected patients turned away. Local Red Cross branches also performed heroically in the dangerous task of disposing of the dead, while a couple of US charities deserve plaudits. But the crisis underscored MSF accusations that rivals are abandoning emergency work in favour of more fashionable and lucrative causes.
Now the major charities and their well-paid bosses are finally waking up, although there is, as ever, a suspicion of cashing in on a crisis. Oxfam was caught using images of an MSF worker to raise funds. Others play the usual numbers game, ramping up figures for those they claim to have helped by releasing jingles on radio stations or “supporting” preachers. One boasted of “reaching” 53,000 people; this turned out to be the distribution of 1,100 hygiene kits, implying each packet of buckets and soap is used by 48 people.
The task now is to contain, curb and defeat this cruel disease; alarmingly, there are already signs of the bureaucratic inertia that impeded reconstruction after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. But the sluggish response to Ebola will end up costing thousands of extra lives and billions of pounds. It has demonstrated again the complacency of an aid industry that endorses human rights abuses, fosters corruption and undermines good governance – and then mostly missed a huge humanitarian crisis unfolding before its eyes.
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