Aid sceptics, such as William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, have made a powerful case against not only the waste and perverse impacts of many misguided projects, but also the patronising and disempowering assumptions of ‘northerners’ seeking to shoulder a new ‘white man’s burden’.
Aid’s supporters, such as Owen Barder, point out that far from showering ‘trillions of dollars’ on Africa, the world’s richest countries have given less to the continent in its entire history than they spent in one year – 2009 – on the fiscal stimulus. Over the last 20 years, he notes, total aid to sub-Saharan Africa has hovered at about $37 per person per year, compared with the $200 a year that the US invested in the citizens of postwar Europe in the Marshall plan. Properly planned and effectively delivered aid works, he argues, and we should be seeking to build on its proven successes.
But the sound and fury of this debate obscures a discussion which turns both arguments on their head. Rich countries’ aid budgets will inevitably eventually be squeezed by fiscal austerity in the coming years. But an increasing amount of the aid that is reaching poor countries is now coming from other parts of the global south, particularly from middle-income countries such as Brazil, India and China.
Brazil’s emergence as one of the world’s biggest providers of help to poor countries is forcing a rethink. China’s growing, and rapacious, interest in Africa’s natural resources has now been well documented, but Brazilian investments are not that far behind. The country’s official aid budget has tripled in the last two years. Brazil is also dramatically increasing its diplomatic corps, and opening a string of new embassies across the continent. As the Economist recently noted, its total development spending could be about $4bn a year, which roughly matches the spending of traditional donor countries such as Canada and Sweden.
Like China, Brazil does not impose western-style conditions on recipients, but its aid is focused more on social programmes and agriculture than the infrastructure projects that China is using to extract Africa’s raw materials. Brazil is also interested in buying up African commodities and in creating markets for its ‘green’ ethanol and business opportunities for its powerful agricultural lobby.
Brazil still receives substantial sums of aid, particularly for its impoverished north-east region and President Lula’s government has been criticised for sending money abroad that could be used for domestic poverty alleviation. His government rightly retorts that the investment made in south-south economic linkages was one of the reasons why Brazil emerged so unscathed from the world economic crisis and that the balance of global power is now irrevocably shifting in their direction.
Brazil has become an increasingly assertive player at the World Trade Organisation and its influence inside bodies such as the G20, the IMF and World Bank is also growing. Its funding for various UN agencies, and the humanitarian commitments it has taken on in Gaza and Haiti, all point towards a heightened sense of global self-awareness.
However, Brazil sometimes struggles to explain what it is trying to achieve with the influence that its ‘soft power’ is buying. Its pursuit of a permanent seat on the UN security council has led it to make questionable alliances with countries such as Sri Lanka, Iran and North Korea when their human rights records come under scrutiny. These clearly cut across its efforts to be taken seriously as one of the world’s largest democracies and have been criticised by Brazilian human rights organisations.
Brazil’s promotion of bodies such as the Bric bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and Ibsa (India, Brazil, South Africa), however, is attracting a wider interest. In his first major speech as foreign secretary, William Hague vowed that bolstering links with such groups should be a ‘first priority’ of British foreign policy, and criticised the previous government’s record. ‘In recent years, Britain’s approach to building relationships with new and emerging powers has been ad hoc and patchy,’ he said, ‘giving rise to the frequent complaint from such governments that British ministers only get in touch when a crisis arises or a crucial vote is needed’.
British officials in Brazil are giving increasing thought as to how they can work with their Brazilian counterparts to pursue common objectives, while accepting that their interests will not necessarily always be aligned. As both a donor and recipient of aid, Brazil breaks the top-down paradigm in which aid is traditionally perceived. Indeed some of its most successful poverty reduction projects have been pioneered inside the country first.
Brazil’s chronic social and environmental problems, linked to poverty, violence and inequality, also give its people a natural empathy with those facing similar problems elsewhere in the world. As a Brazilian friend said to me after returning from a trip to Haiti: ‘We look at the suffering of those people and we see ourselves right there.’