The World from Berlin: 'Development Aid Achieves the Opposite of Its Goals'

When the United Nations agreed on the Millennium Development Goals a decade ago, it was a triumph of consensus. But with five years to go before a self-imposed deadline, failure on many fronts is a real possibility. German commentators discuss why this is so.

The United Nations General Assembly discussed the body's development aid goals this week in New York. Zoom
REUTERS

The United Nations General Assembly discussed the body's development aid goals this week in New York.

Consensus has never been the United Nations' strong suit. Wars of words are common, as are Security Council vetoes against even the most benign of resolutions. Even the Thursday evening speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- in which he talked of a theory that the US had orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks as a way of bolstering its economy -- is hardly out of the ordinary. After all, it was only four years ago that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told gathered UN delegates that the podium "smells of sulphur still today" -- a reference, he made clear, to the previous day's speech by US President George W. Bush, who Chavez referred to as "the devil."

Still, there is one pledge that all agree on. Ten years ago, 189 countries promised to slash extreme poverty and hunger, dramatically reduce child mortality and combat disease, among other ambitious global goals. In 2002, leaders of the industrialized countries pledged to increase aid to 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product.

Earlier this week, world leaders gathered in New York for the 10-year anniversary of the so-called Millennium Development Goals. With just five years to go before those goals were supposed to have been met, the results are not terribly encouraging. While the number of those around the world suffering from extreme poverty -- defined as living off less than $1.25 per day -- has dropped substantially, much of that progress has come as a result of the economic boom in China and elsewhere in Asia. In Africa, the situation remains almost as bleak as it was a decade ago.

The same holds true for a number of other goals. While several African countries have made progress when it comes to infant mortality, many others have regressed. Perhaps most disturbingly, aside from a handful of countries in Europe, industrialized countries have fallen well shy of the 0.7 percent aid goal.

As Esther Duflo, a development expert at MIT, told the New York Times earlier this week: "If we miss the goals, who is going to punish us? Nobody is going to come from Mars and say, 'You didn't reach the goals, so we will invade.' There is no onus."

German commentators are also concerned that the goals may not be met and discuss the topic on editorial pages on Friday.

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Some progress, of course, has been made -- a bit less hunger, a bit more clean drinking water, for example. But the fact that these successes are largely limited to Asia went almost unmentioned. Because 1990 was chosen as the base year, economic growth in China has had a huge statistical effect. But that only serves to cover up just how dramatic the situation remains in other countries, first and foremost, those in Africa."

"By throwing all developing countries into the same pot, industrialized countries are diverting attention from the unique responsibility they bear for Africa. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed responsibility even further away with her cynical remark that development in poor countries is primarily the responsibility of their governments. Nobody is talking any more about the fatal role European colonial powers played in Africa until just a few decades ago. They were the ones who developed the economic and trade structures which continue, even today, to hinder the development of the continent. The few crumbs of modest development aid they have offered have changed nothing."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The 0.7 percent target has become a sacred cow, not unlike the 2 degrees Celsius that global warming is to be limited to. What would happen were the industrialized nations to suddenly fulfil their pledge tomorrow? Does anyone seriously believe that families in Congo, Sudan, Somalia or Haiti would suddenly earn enough, be able to send their children to school and receive medical care?"

"For decades, it has been obvious that development aid as a rule achieves exactly the opposite of that which is desired. Hundreds of economists, disillusioned aid workers and experts in recipient countries have discussed in books and essays the senselessness of the well-intentioned undertaking. Those who travel through Africa with open eyes see failed projects everywhere. Particularly those countries which have been favored by development aid -- countries which have received billions of euros over decades -- are worse off than before. At the same time, countries in Latin America and Asia, which have hardly been helped at all, have undergone dynamic change and are now competing directly with industrialized nations in the global marketplace. How uninspired must one be to demand more of the same in the face of such results?"

"The failure of development aid is not the result of a lack of money. Insiders quietly report that in many countries they have problems finding enough worthwhile projects to spend their budgets on. There must then be other reasons to explain why some countries make no progress while others that were once just as underdeveloped now boast of phenomenal growth rates. The chancellor was clear in her speech in New York: 'The development process is first and foremost the responsibility of those governing in developing countries. Whether aid can efficiently lead to success is in their hands.' It is wrong to pamper regimes that care nothing about their people -- or those whose power ends at the edges of the capital city. Doing so only extends their people's suffering."

The center-left Frankfurter Rundschau writes:

"Chancellor Angela Merkel's pledge to contribute 0.7 percent of Germany's GDP to development aid by 2015 should be placed in the category of hackneyed rhetoric. For that to happen, German aid expenditures would have to increase annually by €2 billion over the next several years. In fact, however, the budget of Germany's Development Minister Dirk Niebel is scheduled to shrink to €380 million by 2015."

"Merkel and Niebel attracted attention in New York for their unique agenda, anchored in advice and warnings. First and foremost, they said, recipients must live up to their own responsibility and donor countries must ensure that recipient countries are well governed. Development aid, they intoned, is more than just a series of projects, rather the goal should be helping those who help themselves. What's more important than the size of the budget is the effectiveness of development cooperation."

"It is a relatively transparent attempt to divert attention away from their own breach of promise. Their warnings must have been received with mystification by other donor countries and by non-governmental organizations. Merkel and Niebel spoke at the UN as though the Paris Declaration of 2005, a declaration which was broadened in Accra in 2008, had never been made. The ideas of responsibility, cooperation, accountability and results have been priorities since then. Donor countries and recipient countries have long since accepted those ideas, as have multilateral and non-governmental organizations."

-- Charles Hawley

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