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Transatlantic Blog

Foreign aid fraud concerns ‘valid,’ says UK chief

The man who oversees the UK’s foreign aid budget says that public concerns about fraud, abuse, and futility associated with international development programs are “valid.” And he plans to fight those perceptions by launching an evangelistic campaign on behalf of the government.

Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary for the Department for International Development (DfID), told a civil service website that foreign aid skeptics raise two chief objections: Either they believe that “the problems are too big” to fix or that “the whole thing is corrupt and money never ends up where it should.”

“Those are both valid criticisms, and we need to address them,” Rycroft said.

In fact Rycroft, who formerly served at the UN, says he has already taken action to address skeptics: He’s asked aid workers to act as missionaries for foreign aid.

The program, called Aid Works, has community leaders in the West Midlands listen to “aid workers who are returning from deploying in an emergency medical team, or other voices that will have resonance, and trying to get [out] those individual stories about what British aid has been doing in their name.”

This is a common tactic for (religious) missionaries and political canvassers. The most powerful sales technique is a first-person testimonial. After all, as AEI’s Arthur Brooks emphasizes, people are moved by stories and narrative rather than facts and data.

But amidst this dialogue, one story must never be forgotten: The scandal of Oxfam employees’ sexual coercion of aid recipients in Haiti, Workers used food as leverage to gain sexual favors – Harvey Weinstein humanitarianism. Nor should taxpayers forget the subsequent cover-up, in which aid workers misled the UK Charity Commission about the taxpayer-funded abuse. This is talebearing of an entirely different kind.

The government has pledged to clean this up, just as Rycroft has promised to crack down on fraud. One might be more optimistic of promises to curb mismanagement of aid programs intended to help the world’s poorest people were they a less common occurrence. However, pledges to reform government bureaucracy seem inevitably conjoined to future scandals.  

Much of the corruption comes from two factors: In 2015, the UK agreed to spend 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid. And the recipient nations are known for rampant fraud.

The National Audit Office (NAO) warned the coalition government in 2011 that that theft of development aid – which it described as “leakage” – “will potentially increase as the spending increases for [needy] countries with less” accountability.

When large piles of money pour into nations punctured by corruption, one expects “leakage.”

The NAO report raised “good points,” according to the man in charge of overseeing all foreign aid programs at that time, Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell. 

Nonetheless, DfID fraud cases quadrupled between 2010 and 2015.

Four years after the NAO report, a DfID-funded aid group stood accused of giving £19 billion to a firm linked with convicted Nigerian money launderer James Ibori.

Now, government officials charge DfID with making dubious reports to conceal financial wrongdoing. Last April, the House of Commons’ financial watchdog noted the “DfID’s recorded losses to fraud in 2015-16 were only 0.03 percent of its budget, significantly lower than other departments operating in the United Kingdom.”

Such minuscule figures, the report said, “do not seem credible, given the risks they face overseas.”

People of faith could, and should, offer an alternative that lifts the world’s poor out of the shifting sands of government aid and places them on the firm ground of self-sufficiency. Yet too many Christian leaders endorse government programs which have largely replaced church charities.

One of them is Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who now chairs Christian Aid. He called the 0.7 percent budget commitment a “badge of honour” and “something to be proud of, not a political football.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Christian Aid receives DFID funding.

“Aid is not about creating dependence but helping people become valued partners and co-workers,” Williams said.

However, government checks have no better record of creating flourishing human lives in Limpopo than in Liverpool.

“Aid has the perverse effect that it makes [African] politicians much more oriented toward what will get them more money from the West than it does to making them meet the needs of their own people,” said former World Bank economist William Easterly.

Ultimately, private philanthropy should be a bridge for people who wish to create a society based on the rule of law, limited government, private property rights, and virtue informed by religious principles.

Entrepreneurship in an advanced culture will create a flourishing society, and skepticism will dissolve together with the worst forms of poverty.

(Photo credit: Feed My Starving Children. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.