LAST year ended with some ferocious attacks on Britain’s overseas aid budget by right-wing newspapers. Reading through the material over the Christmas holidays — I know, there were far more festive things to do — prompted me to formulate a couple of New Year’s Resolutions for politicians and press alike.
Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with development knows that the quality of foreign aid needs to be constantly scrutinised and improved. The Times and the Daily Mail, in particular, highlighted three areas of concern: too much money is being spent on highly paid Western consultants; the chief executives of some charities in receipt of British aid earn massive salaries; and large sums are being invested in private sector growth on the debatable assumption that benefits will “trickle down” to the poor, when aid ought to be targeted at direct poverty alleviation.
But the campaigns also revealed the need for much higher-quality journalism. Too many articles were filled with leaps in logic, false equivalence, and ideologically driven innuendo and smear.
Again, let’s take three just examples. The Times downloaded large amounts of data, which is freely available on government websites, and presented it as an investigative scoop. Some of what it found was, aid insiders know, cause for genuine concern. But other material lacked context, such as its complaint of £23,000 in taxpayers’ money going to write a two-page policy brief — as if it would have been better “value for money” if it was 200 pages long.
This is classic confusion of quantity and quality, input and outcome. The real question is surely how much work went into those two pages, what logistical and security challenges the authors faced, and whether the document was penetrating and useful.
The Daily Mail went beyond sloppy cut-and-paste journalism with a misleading claim that millions of pounds went to a girl band that is the Ethiopian equivalent of the Spice Girls. In fact, the money goes to a project to combat forced early marriage, child slavery, and to educate girls — reducing child mortality and HIV transmission, and raising family incomes.
But most pernicious was the extrapolation that several newspapers invited that all this proved that all British aid was so inefficient and corrupt that the cash should be diverted to the care of the elderly in the UK. That is as preposterous as saying that the deaths at Stafford Hospital mean that we should do the same with NHS funds. Or that dubious procurement practices on Trident mean that we should abolish the Ministry of Defence.
Instead of feeding dog-whistle politics that panders to the ugliest currents in British public life, the press should focus on the difficult questions. How much should you pay senior charity workers if you want to harness the best skills of the business sector to maximise the number of poor people whom charities can help? Are constraints on the number of civil servants a false economy that has led to the growth in overpaid consultants? Is giving the world’s poor 7p out of every £10 of our national income really over-generous?
Of course, tackling such dilemmas will be harder work than wilfully misleading readers to feed a political agenda.