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CAN FOREIGN AID EVER WORK?

Does Foreign Aid Really Work? Roger C. Riddell. Oxford University Press. [pounds sterling]18.99. xxvi + 505 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-929565-4.

Roger Riddell is a highly qualified man who has spent his working life in the world of international aid. He has worked for recipient governments and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), including five years as International Director of Christian Aid. Like many people in the warm and fuzzy world of internationalism--diplomats, businessmen and managers of NGOs--he knows the two-fold pressure involved: really understanding the country in which one is working, and the country from which one springs. This book is a very sound, comprehensive and factually accurate overall account of his world, and he has done a good job of controlling his own beliefs and prejudices. It is a pity that it strikes a well-disposed reader as rather Panglossian: if this is not yet 'the best of all possible worlds', it has the capacity to become so if we all pull together and remember our duty to our fellow man. One felt a tingle of scepticism when one saw 'bad' Governments given inverted commas: in most people's minds, there is no doubt that there are a lot of really, 100 per cent-proof, bad Governments around, and aid given to their peoples is given despite the dictator pro tem.

But set that aside: this is a necessary book. Any third-year student who has a project in international relations, or who is thinking that two or three years might well be spent working in sub-Saharan Africa, will find this book well worth reading. Its historical sweep starts with the Marshall Plan, and embraces Harry S Truman, Lester Pearson, Willy Brandt and every other name of note. It is a pity Mr Riddell does not note that the Marshall Plan actually worked; it dragged Italy back from the edge of the Communist precipice, and it kick-started the awesome German revival (ignoring the fact that the re-starting of Volkswagen was a British achievement). It also raised a lot of questions which are still around. Is it wise to revive competitors? What is the relative importance of free trade? What is the relative importance of conscience compared to self-interest? Should one give to individual projects, as compared with background and continuous 'programme support'?

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the description of the various theoretical reasons for giving aid. There is a comprehensive review of these, beginning with utilitarianism--although one doubts if Bentham would recognise it as such. To take a pound from a rich man in the First World and give it to a peasant in the Third World adds to utility because the peasant will make more or better use of it. Mr Riddell moves on to liberalism, and gives the rather dated approach of John Rawls and his 'veil of ignorance' a good report, as he does the overbearing egalitarianism of Ronald Dworkin. It is surprising to see the intellectual contortions people are led into once they have decided that it is a good and necessary thing to give aid so that children shall not die of starvation. Mr Riddell does not give nearly enough space or emphasis to the modern media -especially television--and modern travel. People go on holiday to the coastline of Africa or South America, because they can and it is affordable, and while there they glimpse the shacks on the hillsides and the living conditions of the people inside them: and when they come home, they switch on the TV and see children with swollen bellies and mothers walking miles for firewood or water. Who can resist such a tug at the heart-strings? Who, indeed, can resist those heart-rending letters from Uganda, beginning 'Dear Brother in Christ'. Do they have access to English church electoral rolls, one wonders?

As it happens, this reviewer read Riddell's book while the television was filling my living-room with the floods which swept through Yorkshire and adjoining parts; and before I had finished it, there were floods sweeping down the Severn and Avon. Ten thousand houses at least were wrecked in Hull alone. The Government was neither quick nor generous in its response. There was a lack of imagination here: until one's own home has been flooded--with sewage-contaminated water--one cannot realise the full levelling shock. Of course one is not reduced to the level of African peasant farmers, but a bit of overseas aid re-directed to unfortunates at home would not come amiss. One issue which arises in emergency aid at home but does not usually arise in the Developing World is insurance: how far should people who have paid for insurance be excluded by that fact from emergency aid? Per contra, one issue which arises overseas but not at home--and one Mr Riddell does discuss--is the relationship between aid and military activity. It is all very well for NGOs to protest their independence, peacefulness, etc., but the fact remains that aid is simply not going to get to parts of Congo, Darfur, Burma, etc., unless there are armoured cars visible in the background. When soldiers hand out food parcels, are they doing it for humanitarian motives or simply to assist themselves? With honesty, Mr Riddell mentions these as unresolved issues. There are many such.
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Author:Wedd, George
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Words:873
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