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Environment

Oxfam says strategic interests distort global aid flow

A new report by the international aid organization Oxfam accuses donor countries of allowing military and security interests to disproportionately influence aid allocation.

A woman sitting holding a stack of dollar bills

Aid doesn't always reach the people who need it most

Billions of dollars are being used for "unsustainable, expensive and sometimes dangerous aid projects" supporting short-term foreign policy and security objectives, while countries in desperate need are being overlooked, according to Oxfam.

In its report, the non-profit organization highlighted tens of billions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. Deutsche Welle spoke with Michael Bailey, a senior policy advisor at Oxfam about misappropriated aid.

DW: Are the concerns highlighted in Oxfam’s report really a new phenomenon? Haven't donor countries always helped some regions more than others because of strategic interests?

Closeup of an empty hand

If aid doesn't help build communities it's only a short-term support

Michael Bailey: We certainly saw during the Cold War that there were some major distortions in aid allocation according to the political interests of the donors. But in the 1990s, we made progress in getting aid allocated according to where there was human need, which is, after all, the intention of citizens [who make donations]. When the so-called war on terror kicked off in 2001, we saw once again a shift in policy amongst Western donors such as Canada, France and the UK to considering security interests when allocating funds. That's what we're saying is a problem.

Can you offer some specific examples?

If you look at allocations in the course of this past decade to Iraq and Afghanistan, it's much higher on a per capita basis than the aid given to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is one of the worst places to live on Earth, and has been for a couple of decades. I think aid per capita at one point in Iraq was 18 times higher than the aid per capita in Congo, even though Iraq - despite the violence at the time - was considerably less badly off than the Congo.

Apart from Congo, which countries and causes would you say are losing out at the moment?

It's partly a bias in the allocation by country, but there's also a bias in terms of which regions of a country are getting aid. If you look at Afghanistan, there's been a massive emphasis on the areas of insurgency and a relative neglect of other parts of the country, which could be as poor or poorer.

A Yemeni demonstrator displays a local currency note

People could view unrest as a prerequisite for receiving aid

You see it in Yemen, too. International aid, particularly American aid, is going to areas where there's potential insurgency or links to al Qaeda, and, in fact, these are parts of the country that are in less need than others. Apart from the injustice of it, it creates a perverse incentive. It means that if you're in a quieter part of the country, you don't get any assistance, so you have every interest in creating a situation where the aid does come to you.

What are the problems that can arise if aid is linked to military and strategic aims?

The money is often not well spent. That's one of the big problems. If you look at the assistance that the US has given in northern Kenya, which is an area of security interest for the Americans, the US Army has built schools there and then forgotten about them or not ensured that there are teachers and materials for that school to be sustainable. We've seen that happen in many parts of Afghanistan as well. The assistance is badly done. It's not done with the participation of communities or local government in a way that would make it sustainable. In Afghanistan, for example, the US commanders have over a billion dollars at their disposal for projects to win the hearts and minds of the population - that's more than the combined health and education budget of the Afghan government.

Development means involving communities, it means strengthening local government and national government institutions so that basic services are provided to the population. If the military are essentially bypassing those structures by using private contractors, or doing infrastructure work themselves, then you're not getting those long-term benefits.

You have also said it’s dangerous when aid is being used to support security strategies. Why is that?

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Foreign policy should not direct aid flow, Bailey said

In situations of hot conflict, it can put communities at risk. If assistance has been provided by the military, then whatever they've built or whatever service they're providing can become a target for insurgents. We've seen schools destroyed because they've been built by the military.

The other aspect is that aid organizations working in situations of conflict have to be seen by all parties as being independent. We [at Oxfam] don't want to be seen as branches of government, and we certainly don't want to be linked to insurgent groups either. The distinction between what's a neutral, independent, humanitarian effort and what's actually part of a military strategy can otherwise become very blurred.

Which countries are you most critical of?

The US traditionally has linked its aid work to its perceived overseas interests. I think under the new administration there's been a tendency to give more independence to the aid effort, although they've still got a long way to go to match the Europeans, for example, who tend to be better on this issue. However, we've seen worrying signs in Europe, too. The European Union is now tending to put aid decision-making under the wing of its foreign policy machinery, which gives less independence to the aid divisions of the EU. In the past, the EU kept a boundary between foreign policy and administration decisions in the aid program, and I think we're seeing with the post Lisbon reforms that aid effort being more subordinated to the foreign policy machine. We'll see how it goes, but we're very concerned.

Interview: Anke Rasper

Editor: Sean Sinico

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