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Trumped-Up Aid and the Challenge of Global Poverty by Tony Vaux

Trumped-Up Aid and the Challenge of Global Poverty by Tony Vaux




Tony Vaux has written a blistering attack on aid and aid agencies – especially powerful because of his high reputation and long experience as an aid practitioner and analyst. All are fingered: Government agencies and NGOs; development programmes and humanitarian; African contexts, Caribbean, and Asian. You might not normally see this book, privately published in 2017 via the e-book partnership, but you should. It is available on Amazon.

The key to the book is an anecdote from the early 1980s, when Tony Vaux is an Oxfam Field Director in then Calcutta. He travels to Bihar, to meet a poor community of landless labourers and try to work out some kind of income-generation project Oxfam might support - perhaps growing a few vegetables around their houses. He is shocked to discover that even this poor group, degraded by having to eat snails, is better off than a neighbouring poor widow, with no income at all. Then, he hears about another group in a nearby village, labourers who have been deliberately blinded by landowners because they asked for an increase in wages. ‘I began to see’, he says, ‘that poverty, however extreme, is not as bad as the threat of losing even the little that poor people had – the risk of violence and death. I learned that poverty walks hand in hand with violence’ (Pgs 5-6).

The theme is developed through 12 chapters, which draw on Vaux’s field experience with Oxfam, but also a long career spent carrying out evaluations or writing conflict analyses for different agencies. We travel with him to former Yugoslavia and Kyrgyzstan, to Sudan and Somalia, to Nepal and Sri Lanka, to Haiti, to Nigeria. The key generalisation at the end is that ‘poverty is at most a minor contributory factor to violence. It is not the anger of poor people that starts wars, but the greed or ambition of elite leaders who then choose to exploit the vulnerability of poor people as the means to achieve their ends’ (Pg 183).

Aid agencies turn out mostly to be poor at dealing with conflict; and, indeed, often make it worse.

Government agencies are blinkered by concepts like the ‘War on Terror’, and by the lack of local knowledge and long-term engagement on the ground. In former Yugoslavia, for example, ‘the West . . . precipitated the war’ (Pg 20); in Somalia, the US mismanaged its intervention (Pg 19); in South Sudan, an ineffective humanitarian response is ‘worse than no response at all’ (Pg 134); and in Northern Nigeria, the UK’s DFIDDepartment for International Development failed to take local advice, was ‘foolhardy’ in its pursuit of western-style education for girls, and perhaps contributed to the emergence of Boko Haram as a global security threat (Pg 86). Multiple errors in Afghanistan and Iraq are also identified.

NGOs are also culpable. Here, the main problem is that they have lost their vocation as advocates of political change and citizen action, and instead been coopted as agents of Government, overly reliant on Government grants, especially in so-called humanitarian emergencies, and constrained by Government legislation to limit political campaigning. They have become too big to fail, and have lost the ability to ‘speak truth to power’. Indeed, Vaux argues, ‘the atrophy of many Western charities has reached a point at which they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution’ (Pg 64).

This was perhaps not inevitable. Vaux charts the early pioneers of non-Governmental action, for whom political activism came first, and fundraising a distant second. Henry Dunant (the Red Cross) . . . Florence Nightingale (army medical reform) . . . Eglantyne and Dorothy Jebb (Save the Children) . . . Edith Pye (Oxfam) . . . Eglantyne Jebb was arrested while demonstrating in Trafalgar Square against a British embargo on food supplies to Germany after the First World War; Edith Pye campaigned on a similar issue after World War II. So what happened? New funds were established, and grew, and spawned bureaucracies and interests, and we ended up with an aid system that has become ‘institutionalised, inward-looking and self-serving’ (Pg 3).

Vaux is uncompromising in his solution to the problem, which is essentially to ‘dismantle the architecture’ (Pg 30). There should be no more ‘projects’, development or humanitarian. Instead, people themselves should be empowered by citizen action and supported by a universal basic income, or universal social welfare distributed in the form of cash transfers. Indigenous NGOs, like India’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), will take political action. Governments, in short, should be required to face up to their responsibilities.

And what if they don’t? Vaux is an enthusiast for the Responsibility to Protect, adopted by the United Nations in 2005. The rules of intervention need to be re-shaped, he argues, so that ‘intolerable’ wars, like that in South Sudan, can be ended: ‘a tiny fraction of the world’s determination and arsenal could bring it to an immediate stop’ (Pg 234).

Frankly, it is alarming to find such enthusiasm for liberal interventionism at the end of a book which is profoundly, and probably rightly, sceptical about the way interests play out in international affairs. If only we could point to Syria, or Libya, or the Rohingya, or Yemen, as case studies of success. R2P has never seemed more difficult to deliver, the UN never weaker on these matters, than it does at present.

Perhaps a first step is to campaign against, for example, arms sales which exacerbate the conflict in Yemen. Interestingly, Save the Children, one of Tony Vaux’s targets in the book, is doing exactly this, in the context of its campaign to protect children in Yemen.  Its first call is for children to be protected from violence, including from UK-made weapons, arguing that the UK Government must immediately suspend arms sales to any party involved in the conflict. Kevin Watkins, SCF’s Chief Executive, has been outspoken on the topic. Eglantyne Jebb would be proud. Oxfam, too, is campaigning on Yemen, as well as on refugees, and on topics like injustice in the food industry. Edith Pye, too, can be satisfied.

Perhaps Eglantyne and Edith would be horrified by the scale of resources their organisations are spending, or the way they spend them. I guess I am not quite as jaundiced as Tony Vaux, certainly about the intentions and professionalism of aid workers in both Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisations, and their many counterparts in developing countries. On effectiveness also, there is a stronger case to be made than Vaux allows. Oxfam, for one, has long championed and supported the citizen action that he advocates, including to organisations like SEWA.

Aid, however, must every day look to make the case, evolve, and be better. Violence and conflict are big current topics in development, for example in DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) work on States of Fragility, and via the World Development Report. Governance and Institutions remain central, including in research on ‘Doing Development Differently’.  New aid modalities are being created, like the UK’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, or the EU Trust Fund for Africa. In all this work, Tony Vaux’s book is a valuable and often challenging resource.

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