Richard North, 08/10/2004  

Everybody seems to be competing on who should be spending aid money and, indeed, to whom. (Lenin would, no doubt, have appreciated this new version of his old conundrum of “Who whom?”)

Michael Howard, having previously announced that foreign aid was one policy field that ought to be repatriated, has backtracked a little and told his attentive audience in Bournemouth that more aid money should be disbursed from London than from Brussels.

Yesterday Gordon Brown had another one of his celebrated rows with the European Commission, this time about foreign aid, which is not, strictly speaking his province. Speaking to a London conference of charities (at least half of whom were, presumably, NGOs and the other half regularly accepts government money for their activities) he criticized the Commission for allegedly spending more money in the relatively better off Balkan countries than in the impoverished countries of Africa.

His proposals of how to deal with debt and poverty in the poorest countries were dismissed by the current aid and development Commissioner, Poul Nielsen as being too much “like Enron accounting”. When one remembers some of the Chancellor’s shenanigans in successive UK budgets and financial statements, one finds oneself believing Mr Nielsen’s comment.

The all-purpose anti-poverty campaigner Bob Geldof immediately joined in the fray. (What is it about Irish pop musicians? There is Geldof and Bono, both travelling round the world, making completely nonsensical statements about poverty in Third World countries. Is it something in the water?)

Mr Geldof was in Addis Ababa to discuss poverty and starvation in Africa and announced that Poul Nielsen was “talking through his a***e”. (This is a family friendly blog, even if we do have to write about people like Mr Geldof and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.) He also added that Mr Nielson should resign if he does not want to help. Well, Mr Nielson is actually on his way out and his job will be taken over by another Commissioner but Mr Geldof could not possibly know that.

One wonders whether this is the same Mr Geldof who, having organized the collection of very large amounts of money to help people in Eritrea, then had the honesty to admit ten years later that none of that had been of the slightest help because of the political situation? That was before he becameone of the international humanitarian great and the good, one presumes.

What gets lost in all this toing and froing of who controls aid and how much goes to whom is the simple question: but what good does it do. As we have written before and will write again, aid money goes on keeping NGOs, charities and other international organizations in business; it gets stolen; but above all it keeps bloodthirsty, tyrannical kleptocrats in power. Billions have been spent in aid over the years to poor countries, not so poor countries and very poor countries. All of them have become even poorer and more dysfunctional. And no amount of expensive criss-crossing of skies by hundreds of the great and the good or thousands of conference attendees will alter that fact, merely add to the budget.

Still, one interesting event at the Addis Ababa conference did occur. Apparently Prime Minister Blair’s aeroplane flew off to Nairobi to bring back a supposedly gourmet meal for him. As it consisted of asparagus mousse, prawn risotto and cheese cake, one doubts its credentials on the gourmet front and almost believes the Downing Street spokesperson who assured everyone that it was for the travelling press as Mr Blair had eaten already in Addis Ababa. I suppose one could argue that the money spent on the round trip did not find itself in a numbered off shore bank account or in the hands of a terrorist organization or a murderous militia. Otherwise, it is hard to see what the justification was.

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