Is Foreign Aid Sustainable?

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This week, Bill and Melinda Gates (co-founders of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) visited London to speak about the achievements foreign aid has made in the fight against global poverty. In a presentation sponsored by the ONE Campaign titled “Living Proof,” the Gates teamed with Dr. Debrewerk Zewdie from The Global Fund to demonstrate how foreign aid has decreased child and maternal mortality and hunger, and increased average income and access to medical treatment in developing countries in the past decade. However, they insist that aid must be focused and distributed properly to be effective. But even so, is aid sustainable?

Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is a Better Way for Africa, would confidently answer ‘no.’ According to Moyo, “over-reliance on aid has trapped developing nations in a vicious circle of aid dependency, corruption, market distortion, and further poverty, leaving them with nothing but the ‘need’ for more aid.” With problems ranging from lack of access to adequate education or clean water, to overexposure to deadly diseases or lack of access to health services, it is clear there are many needs in developing countries still being unmet despite the introduction of foreign aid decades before.

However, the Gates argue that if foreign aid is approached properly, there are possibilities for sustainability and eventual weaning off of the need for outside aid. In their presentation, they showed there are many countries in Southeast Asia that have actually decreased their aid dependence in the past decade because projects were working (most notably India). Dr. Zewdie also stated that the Global Fund only supplies aid to governments that are able to contribute a portion of the cost themselves, and that many of them begin contributing more and more on their own over time. But this seems to be more of an anomaly, especially when looking at African countries which still rely heavily on aid.

Today’s headlines in the UK bring up another worry for the sustainability of aid; the inability of rich countries to continue to provide it. As we learned today, the UK has made major budget cuts to the police, health, higher education, welfare, social housing and local government sectors. However, no foreign aid cuts were made, leaving some to wonder if the timing of Bill and Melinda Gates “Living Proof” presentation was perfectly planned to put global pressure on the UK to continue its foreign aid commitments. According to the progress of the MDGs, the UK is still behind in its promise to contribute 0.7% of its GNI to foreign aid by 2015 (it’s currently only contributing around 0.5%), so it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume the Gates had ulterior motives for choosing this week for their campaign.

Without the global pressure the Gates brought with them this week, the UK may have been quick to make cuts to their foreign aid budget this year. And who could blame them with their current economy barely able to provide proper assistance to its own citizens? This scenario just exemplifies the fact that developing countries are at the mercy of the stability and economic climate of the rich countries still willing to support them.

So can foreign aid ever really be sustainable? It appears the answer to that question relies heavily on the many different variables involved in the exchange, and maybe only time will tell.

You can watch “Living Proof” in its entirety here

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