Our Perspectives

The 'foreign-aid-doesn’t-work' argument | Jérome Sauvage


 Vietnamese mother and her babyA Hmong woman and her baby in the village of Sin Chai. Vietnam is an example of how successful foreign aid interventions can transform a country. Photo: Kibae Park/UN

Since my arrival in the United States one year ago, I have come across authors such as Roger Riddell who ask pointed questions to those responsible for aid programs. There is an energetic and well-established body of literature that is skeptical of bilateral and multilateral aid.

Here in Washington, I appreciate how USAID focused more on evidence-based reporting whilst we at UNDP are sharing our results much better (as our top IATI rating demonstrates), one person and one country at a time.

Yet a significant piece of evidence is often missing in our demonstrations: the very countries that successfully emerged out of poverty.

I just returned to Vietnam over the New Year holidays. Hanoi was my first post with UNDP. Then, in 1985, the country’s devastation from the war was everywhere. UNDP joined a small group of donors supporting various rehabilitation projects, notably in the coffee and rubber sectors. Today, Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer after Brazil (OK, mainly Robusta) and is likely to become the world’s third-biggest rubber producer. 

Although our presence needed much justifying internationally, we stayed, were able to support the reform process the moment it began, and later on advised the country’s leadership in its negotiations with larger multilateral institutions and banks.

Today, UNDP in Vietnam has earned the right among few institutions to act as a “nagging conscience,” raising the hard issues of governance.

We all have stories like mine from all corners of the world. There is plenty of evidence of success out there. In my limited research experience, foreign aid’s detractors rarely seek to assess whether the aid had impact on past economic and social development. Their criticism addresses the present and seems to take for granted that the successful countries somehow organically emerged out of poverty.

Even the 2013 Human Development Report, “The Rise of the South,” limits itself to mentioning the correlation between public investment in social and physical infrastructure and progress in HDI and refrains from ascribing that progress to foreign aid. Missed opportunity?

We have a full plate this year accelerating the Millennium Development Goals, ushering in a new Strategic Plan and generally delivering much-needed programs across the world. But isn't it worth dedicating a small amount of funds and efforts to publicize the evidence of our past successes and occupy a piece of territory in the argument du jour?


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