07 March 2011

Silence is Golden? Does the muted UK media response to the DFID aid review matter?

Before the aid review was launched, many were worried that it would launch a massive backlash against DFID and aid in general.

Nearly a week on, that has not happened. For example, there were no questions about it on Question Time, the BBC's real time barometer of what the UK public want to hear their elected representatives talk about.

In the online print media, the Independent editorial (March 1) gave the Secretarty of State Andrew Mitchell some praise, but also urged vigilance on securitisation creep and on the short-termism that the cash on delivery agenda might foster. "That shift from the long-term to the short-term carries risks. And a greater focus on security could compromise anti-poverty priorities. Campaigners will need to scrutinise the minutiae of the changes when detailed figures are published in April. But in the meantime, two cheers for Mr Mitchell seem in order."

The Guardian's editorial of March 1 said "Beyond our borders, though, the review that the development secretary announced keeps faith with the 0.7% commitment and ensures Britain's place at the forefront of the effective delivery of aid, although Harriet Harman was right to warn that the decision to freeze aid as a percentage of GNI for the next two years risks undermining that pledge." and "It is, however, an open question which agenda has come out of this review on top. Is it the need to promote the millennium development goal priorities such as health, education, sanitation and nutrition, or the need to channel money into nations deemed to be a higher security risk?"

The Daily Mail's perspective is well summed up in its headline of March 2 "Britain is to pour billions of pounds of aid into the world’s most corrupt countries in a bid to tackle poverty, terrorism and illegal immigration."

I can't find anything in the Daily Telegraph after the Feb 27 story on Aid to India and the same for the Sun (which ran an aid to India story on Feb 18).

The Spectator (March 1) linked the current changes in the Middle East and North Africa with the aid review "the government must initiate a country-by-country "freedom review", looking at how it can support reform across Africa. On the day that DfiD has launched the results of its aid review, looking for places where UK assistance is most effective, it must also look at ways to promote transparency and reform. Supplying the people of Rwanda makes little sense if President Kagame denies them basic freedoms. Working with Ethiopian government is fine, but let's not find ourselves in a Tunisia-style situation where we back a leader who does well in the fight against poverty and tells us that he is reforming as much as he can, only for a pro-democracy to break out and embarrass us."

The March 4 story in the New Statesman links the "aid to India" story with the need to clamp down on tax evasion in India (and the UK). The Economist (March 3) talks about Douglas Alexander (the last DFID Secretary of State and Now Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary) and Labour's foreign policy (less tied to UK commercial interests and more multilateral).

So, a bit of a muted response. The trailed information on aid to India might have drawn the sting, and last week was a busy one for UK media as it dwelt on the Prime Minister's handling of the events in Libya. Does it matter?

Does this relative lack of interest matter?

Many who favour aid will be tempted to treat all this as good news. But I'm not so sure that silence is golden. Of course it's good that there has not been an all-out attack on aid (I think aid has the potential to be transformative and sometimes is).

But vigorous debate helps people understand what is at stake on all sides of the argument and would, I think, help strengthen the case for aid (and an understanding of its limits) in the longer run.

It is often said that the strongest advocates of aid are from donor countries and not from the recipient countries, so please share links from around the world on the DFID aid review.

But the strongest advocates and critics of aid are surely those whose lives are directly affected by it in the recipient countries, for better or worse. These are the people that DFID and the UK public need to hear from.

DFID and other donors need to figure out is how to get this evaluative feedback in a systematic way--that would be true accountability and transparency, a fixing of the broken feedback loop in aid.

"Cash on delivery" is a hollow achievement if we don't know whether what was delivered is what was needed or wanted.


Anonymous said...

Cash on delivery that helps transform a government bureaucracy to actually deliver outputs might be useful even if those outputs are not. (Tho much better if they are!)

lawrence said...

well, I would think it matters what the outputs are and whether the skills to deliver them are transferable to delivering what was really needed...

ZakT said...

I agree that it went fairly uncovered and uncontested in the news. I turned on Channel 4 news on the night of the review but there was not even a mention of it. I believe there were also cuts in aid awareness programs recently, which won't help but I suppose if funding is to be cut at all it is a good place to start rather than hurting those who most need it. It would have been interesting to conduct a poll the day after the review to see how many people even knew about it.

Lawrence Haddad said...

tomas this is something we can ask the UK Public Opinion Monitor to ask about

see http://www.ids.ac.uk/index.cfm?objectid=CDA7E6E7-E50E-2DD7-8E11F8636166AC01

Anonymous said...

International Development is only a feature in the news if a)people want aid to be cut b)Bono or Bob Geldof are in it. With the rise of blogs like yours and mine, any news on ID (and the DFID review has appeared on many blog sites--well wordpress ones) will always come more through the new media.



Lawrence Haddad said...

Jiesheng, in normal circumstances I would agree with you, but the juxtaposition of a 50% increase in UK ODA against a backdrop of daily stories about cuts means that these are not normal times --that's what makes me think the silence is surprising ..