Foreign Aid - who benefits?
Speak to the average person in the West about foreign aid and you are likely to be told that it is a complete waste of money, that the recipients will squander it, that most of it will end up in the Swiss bank accounts of various despots. Ask what percentage of GDP most countries spend on aid, and guesses will range from between 10% and 25%. As very often happens, public opinion is ill informed.
The true volume of foreign aid given out by the Western world is less than 1% of GDP and although most people in the UK are quite convinced that Britain and America are the main donor nations in the world today, the truth is that contributions by Japan greatly exceed those of Britain, and if we compare contributions per head of population then the most generous givers are countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark and The Netherlands. Nor is the aid inevitably a no strings attached gift; donor nations usually have other motives for giving aid rather than the purely altruistic one.
Aid is often given for political reasons, and there are many ways in which a donor can benefit. The most obvious one is military aid in which contributions of food, medical equipment, money or even military supplies can be provided to a government that it is considered politically expedient to promote. There may be valuable assistance that the recipient can offer; access to markets, the provision of military bases, suppression of the drugs trade, action to wipe out or at least control contagious diseases, are all obvious candidates. Economic aid may lift a region out of poverty but there can be a hidden agenda behind this because there is no point in a country attempting to sell its goods or services to another one in which the population does not have a disposable income! There is a trend also for aid to come not as direct donations but as loans; these almost inevitably have to be paid back with interest and if an experiment to boost wealth creation in a poor area fails the people of that area can find themselves not only living at or below a subsistence level but shackled by debt as well.
A particularly popular use of foreign aid by Western governments over the last few decades has been to encourage the spread of democracy in poorer countries by funding organisations which were opposed to the spread of communism, to persuade governments to carry out reforms, and to pay not only for elections but also for monitors to try to ensure that these elections were free and fair. Critics have pointed out that in many parts of the world democracy has never been looked upon as a favoured system of government, and aid has sometimes been channelled to governments with a poor record on human rights.
Whilst there can be criticisms and suspicions of the motivations behind much overseas aid it is undeniable that for hundreds of thousands of people it has been quite literally a life saver. At times of disaster, whether manmade in the form of conflict or natural in the form of earthquakes, tidal waves, disease etc it is exceedingly rare for the international community to fail to respond, not solely at governmental level but also through non governmental aid and charitable organisations, and even through donations made by private individuals; we live in an imperfect world but when given the opportunity to do so our worldwide humanity and basic decency usually shine through.
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