Specs for Ethiopia and why overseas aid is still important

EDITOR'S BLOG: Aid may sometimes end up in the wrong hands, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep giving.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 21 Aug 2015

A number of years ago I set off from London to Jimma in south west Ethiopia with a pair of glasses. I was writing an article about a rather admirable scheme established by the optician Dolland and Aitchison. The idea was that when British customers bought a new pair of specs from the optician they were encouraged to hand over their old pair. These were then sent to a UK prison, where they were cleaned and graded before being shipped abroad to developing countries where glasses were highly expensive and beyond the reach of the poor. They were then distributed free.

In Jimma I found a widow, Mrs Daddu, with a number of kids who repaired mattresses for a living. But her sight had deteriorated and she was finding sewing difficult. Despite the fact that my old specs weren’t quite the correct prescription she put them on and professed herself delighted. I took her picture and did the interview. The heart-warming story was in the bag.    

As I was leaving one of the British aid workers said to me. ‘You realise, don’t you, that it’s more than likely that she will sell the glasses to someone else before long to buy food for her kids.’ This left me feeling somewhat deflated and no end of a fool. What a waste of time and effort, I thought. What a self-regarding and deluded Western do-gooder who just doesn’t get the first thing about the developing world and the true nature of poverty.

Now, for a variety of reasons - not least being older and a bit wiser -  I’m not so sure I’d beat myself or the aid system up that hard. It isn’t perfect but that doesn’t mean we should stop giving.  

Firstly, I’d given the specs to Mrs Daddu and it was entirely up to her what she did with them. If she decided that selling them for food was the best thing for her family, then who was I to argue with that. Secondly, the cupidity of charitable giving will always be there. We do because it makes us feel better about ourselves. And that’s fine. Thirdly, you can give but you cannot control. Neither should you expect that generosity brings a right to control the life of the recipient. Handing out cash followed by strictures is what banks do not charitable donors.

I was made to think about this trip by a slightly intemperate attack by The Times yesterday on the use of the UK’s overseas aid budget. The Times is on a mission to find cash that winds up with the Kenyan secret police or paying the pensions of retired Sudanese civil servants. The fact that Cameron and Osborne have stuck to their guns on giving 0.7% of our output in overseas aid is admirable. It appears to be one of the very few principles they have. The crux of the The Times’s argument is that a sizeable chunk of the money UK plc gives to developing countries is either fecklessly squandered or worse ear-marked by the corrupt for their own ends.

Now clearly we should expect our government to do all it can to chose which projects to which it gives aid very carefully, according to their merit and what they can achieve to alleviate poverty. Both in the short and medium term. Furthemore we should do all we can to ensure the money actually ends up where it is supposed to. This can be very difficult indeed. That said I find The Gates Foundation intense focus on solving very specific, defined  problems highly effective.

The Third Sector  - which has become increasingly competitive, Tesco-ised and ruthless - is very far from perfect. I’ve seen too many high-minded charity workers all over the developing world bumping around in their brand new air conditioned Toyota Landcruisers.

But none of this means we should call a halt to aid, as Farage advocated during the election. Yes, it can seem odd that we slash the budgets of mental health care for children at home while paying for care for the poor in Ethiopia. That country is now growing fast. And, it is hardly an example of good governance. One hopes that President Obama when he address his audience in Addis Ababa tomorrow asks why the country does not have a single opposition MP in its 547-strong parliament.

Nevertheless, our duty of care is to the poor of Ethiopia and elsewhere. We can’t let them down because they have an unpleasant autocratic government.  We give because we aspire to be a humane and civilised nation. Even if Mrs Daddu did sell her specs to someone else. And, for all I know, she may still be wearing them.

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