What do ‘aid workers’ really do?

As I discovered when I was offered a job in foreign aid, it isn’t always about feeding the hungry and tending the sick.

This is probably how most people think about aid to developing countries. International charities ask us to donate money to feed people during famines, put up tents for refugees, provide medical care to civilians in conflict zones, rebuild after earthquakes, or sponsor a child to go to school.

These are all important things to do. They help people get through a crisis, and improve life for a family or a village, possibly even after the aid has stopped.

They don’t, however, provide a long term solution to poverty. When the next disaster happens, the country will still need outside help.

Humanitarian aid like this is actually a very small proportion of the total aid given to less developed countries by the well off.

Humanitarian assistance is just one of the six categories of official development assistance provided by the Australian government, and in the 2019-2020 budget, only 17 per cent of Australia’s aid was directed to humanitarian programs (DFAT 2019 Australian Aid Budget Summary). Other countries’ aid budgets would be much the same.

The majority of government aid goes to activities that are likely to have a much wider and permanent impact. Australia spends money, for example, on building infrastructure, developing agriculture, and  improving health and education services. And 20% of the aid budget is used to support ‘effective governance’.

This is the type of work I’ve been doing for the past 20 years.

Effective governance is all about red tape and regulation. It means helping countries to improve government institutions so they can deliver services like education and health care and infrastructure to citizens without the need for help from charities, and can deal with humanitarian crises themselves.

During my career in development, for example, I’ve helped governments introduce computerised accounting systems to manage their finances, improve budget planning, and restructure the public service to be more efficient and motivated. Meanwhile, people I’ve worked alongside have introduced new types of taxes, drafted new business laws, and improved banking regulations.

It all sounds a bit boring really.    

These are not the life-and-death issues that organisations like MSF or UNHCR or the International Red Cross deal with in places like Sudan or Syria. When I read about the challenging conditions their staff work under, I feel like a bit of a fraud.

By comparison, people who do my type of aid work have it pretty easy. We usually work in relatively clean offices, and rarely need to go to remote or dangerous or uncomfortable locations, although we do, sometimes, visit active war zones.

It’s also often difficult to see the results of ‘governance’ work. Changes in laws and processes and institutions may take years, even decades, to have a measurable impact.

I’ve read, for example, that India’s recent success in information technology can be traced to a project to expand technical education colleges back in the 1950s.

Successful economic development in South Korea and Taiwan has been attributed to reforms to land ownership implemented under US administration immediately after the war. (And the relative lack of economic development in the Philippines to the failure to implement similar reforms.)

In Afghanistan, the government still uses accounting processes set up by an American aid project in the 1960s, well before computers. This system, based on forms and ledger books, continued to work through decades of war and invasion and enabled the basic processes of government to keep going through every change in regime.

Many other developing countries are operating today with laws and constitutions, public service salary scales and regulations, electoral procedures and school text books that were provided years ago as part of an aid project.

In other cases, however, political events quickly undermine all the good work of expert advisers. Civil war, a change of government, or just a decision by a donor to end a project, can set back the process of change. On average though, aid for ‘effective governance’ can have a significant impact in the long term and improve life for many more people than a short term handout or child sponsorship, even though the average taxpayer may know little about it.

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