Monday 23 May 2022 | 02:06 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 02:06 | SYDNEY

Foreign aid a poor cousin to the military

17 February 2010 12:14

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and author of a forthcoming book on the economics of post-disaster reconstruction.

In his most recent post, Jim Molan objects to some aspects of Sam's characterisation of his position on Afghanistan and Iraq, and tosses in some criticisms of the aid community along the way. As the chair of the board of a small aid NGO in Canberra (NTA East Indonesia Aid), perhaps I might suggest one reason why aid activities often seem to yield disappointing results – money.

Jim talks of the way non-military people 'almost always under-commit' when deciding to use military force. Well, if this is true for the use of military elements in responding to difficult situations in fragile states, it is much more true for the use of aid. As a general principle, political leaders are much keener to support the military (and the military budget) than they are to support the aid community.

Considering the bewilderingly wide range of challenges that the international aid community is expected to try to respond to, aid budgets in rich nations are generally miserably small when compared to military spending. Here in Australia, for example, military spending is currently running at around $25 billion per annum (or more, depending on what is included) compared to an aid vote of under $4 billion this year.

Global aid spending is no better. The OECD's Development Assistance Committee reported that in 2008, total aid spending by all rich OECD countries combined amounted to around $120 billion. This works out to around $30 per person when spread across the (roughly) 4 billion people in the poor countries which receive the aid – or around $2 per person per month. 

You don't get much for $2 per person per month, especially when you are trying to respond to a list of demands which includes disasters (Haiti), hunger, malnutrition, disease (tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria), agricultural development, primary, secondary and tertiary education, water supply, sanitation, roads, electricity, ports, family planning, domestic violence, gender issues, corruption, democracy, elections, rule of law, drugs, money laundering and climate change, among others.

Photo by Flickr user Eifion, used under a Creative Commons license.