Aid is one of those topics that always seems to attract controversy. So, it was no surprise that when the OECD released the latest data on Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries last week, it attracted a flurry of comment and discussion – some positive, some negative.
On the plus side, many news reports noted that aid had stayed at close to historic levels in 2014, around $135 billion – a performance OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría saw as encouraging “at a time when donor countries are still emerging from the toughest economic crisis of our lifetime”.
Less encouraging, a smaller share of that money made its way to the world’s poorest or least developed countries (LDCs). That looks to be part of a trend: “The decline in ODA to LDCs is something that we’ve been worried about for a couple of years,” the OECD’s Yasmin Ahmad said in The Guardian.
This shift away from supporting poorer countries was described as “shocking,” by ONE, an international advocacy organisation. “Alarm bells should be ringing,” it added. “In 2014, aid to the very poorest countries was cut by $128 million every week – enough to vaccinate 6 million children.”
There was concern, too, from Oxfam International. It pointed out that while total ODA appeared to have remained stable over the past two years ($135.2 billion in 2014 vs. $135.1 billion in 2013), this actually represented a fall of 0.5% in real terms.
Oxfam also argued that – with some exceptions – wealthy countries were still failing to meet a commitment to give 0.7% of their gross national income (GNI) in aid. “Governments first promised to deliver 0.7% of their national income to support poor countries when Richard Nixon was President of America and the Beatles were topping the charts,” said Claire Godfrey, Oxfam’s Senior Policy Advisor, said. “In the 45 years since only a handful of countries have delivered on this promise.”
Away from the headline story, much of the reporting focused on the performance of individual countries. Here, again, the picture was mixed.
Overall, 13 of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee members increased ODA in 2014 while 15 did not. Countries in this latter group included Australia and Canada, where Stephen Brown of the University of Ottawa warned that “Canadian claims to leadership in international development are contradicted by our relative stinginess,” The Canadian Press reported. However, a government spokesman pointed out that Canada had increased its spending on humanitarian aid – funds distributed after natural disasters and so on – by 62% last year.
Other countries that cut back on ODA last year included France and Ireland. There, The Irish Times quoted Oxfam’s Jim Clarken as saying that “the poorest people on our planet need more ambitious action”. However, it also quoted a government spokesman as saying that the aid budget had been protected as much as possible “in the most difficult of economic circumstances,” and that Ireland remained committed to reaching the 0.7% of GNI target.
What about countries that raised their ODA? The United Arab Emirates proudly announced that it was now the “most generous” donor in the world, with ODA reaching 1.17% of GNI in 2014. “We will continue to reinforce our position as a global hub for humanitarian relief for all those in need of our help,” Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was quoted as saying.
There was an impressive showing, too, from the United Kingdom. “While most countries cut foreign aid, ours goes UP,” a headline in The Daily Mail declared. In the report, Oxfam’s Max Lawson contrasted Britain’s record with that of other countries: “Aid saves lives. What we’re seeing is shameful indifference on the part of many of the world’s richest nations.” Still, not everyone was happy. The newspaper also quoted Conservative MP Peter Bone, who said that “when we have seen cuts at home, people find it very strange that we can give away so many billions of pounds a year.”