When aid is effective and when it’s not

Now that we are seeing on our television screens suffering and distress in Europe on a scale as never experienced before since World War 2, how much aid we give, and what sort, is becoming a lively topic. However, as Angus Deaton, last year’s Nobel laureate in economics, has showed in his lifetime’s work, a donor had better not make assumptions about the needs of the potential recipient — unless he knows the recipients very well indeed — because he will almost certainly get them wrong.

Private aid from rich cultures to poor ones, particularly via multi-layered organisations like Oxfam, is as likely to be as miscast and thus, subsequently misspent, as government aid.

Even when the need seem to be obvious — such as the Ebola epidemic in East Africa last year — our medical and technological aid, even the two vaccines that were hastily developed, did very little. Our government’s aid — the building of a hospital by soldiers (after several weeks of unnecessary training in medical matters before they went there) — was so slow that the density of outbreaks around them grew much worse.

It was only when the people had absorbed the nature of the diseese that they applied the only effective solution — widespread self-quarantining — the same that had been adopted by hundreds of villages in England during the Black Plague.

Aid is seldom as good as trade unless it’s local and transactional, that is when debts are implicitly understood rather than explicit. Altruism is only at its best at home when debt, recorded in collective memory, is usually repaid sooner or later, if not by the original recipient then by another memory shareholder.

When aid is not transactional then there’s an ulterior motive such as enhanced national or personal status — or sometimes both at the same time when government politicians make ‘generous’ decisions to foreign countries.

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