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Foreign aid is building too many roads and bridges and sending too few poor children to school, an international consortium of aid agencies says.

A report by the consortium, based on analysis of figures from the world's richest countries, says the average foreign-aid budget allocates less than 3 percent of spending to basic health and education.The two categories are considered key to eliminating absolute poverty among an estimated one billion people around the world. World leaders pledged to eradicate absolute poverty at a United Nations social-development summit meeting in Copenhagen last year and endorsed the principle of spending 20 percent of aid on basic social services.

But the agencies say the 21 countries that donate most foreign aid continue to devote too much of their aid budgets to large infrastructure projects.

"There is no clear link between the majority of aid spending and impact on absolute poverty," the report says.

Basic health care includes such items as primary-care clinics and oral-rehydration programs. Basic education includes primary schools and literacy schemes. Basic education - particularly for girls and women - is considered more effective in reducing absolute poverty than professional-training programs and university exchanges.

Aid donors gave an average of just 1.2 percent of their money to basic education, 1.3 percent to basic health and 4 percent to water and sanitation projects, the report says.

"Too much aid is being squandered by governments on projects which have more to do with commercial and political advantage ...," the authors say. They note that much aid is still contingent on purchases being made in the donor country.

For example, 45 percent of Canada's aid agreements require that some puchases be made in Canada. They give examples, such as a Belgian project in Indonesia that created a market for a Belgian company's outmoded lathes.

They cite studies of New Zealand's aid program, which "concluded that political, strategic and economic motivations are as important as humanitarian ones."

The report, titled "The Reality of Aid 1996," is produced by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies and Eurostep, a group of European aid agencies. The chapter on Canada was written by Brian Tomlinson of the Canadian Council on International Cooperation, an ICVA member. It is the fourth in an annual series analyzing figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The data cover the 1994 calendar year.

The report highlights several trends:

- Eight of 21 donors cut their aid levels in 1994 and average spending fell to 0.3 percent of gross national product, the lowest level in 20 years.

- Governments preoccupied with spending cuts are slashing aid budgets even though surveys suggest that in many rich countries voters continue to believe aid levels should not be lowered.

- Aid to the world's poorest countries has fallen by 7 percent since 1990. At the same time, governments have managed to increase their aid to the better-off nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

- Because of crises in such places as Rwanda and Somalia, emergency relief is accounting for a greater share of total aid - up from 1.5 percent of bilateral aid in 1991 to 8.4 percent in 1994.

Japan was the largest aid donor at $13.2 billion, followed by the United States at $9.9 billion, France at $8.5 billion and Germany at $6.8 billion. But U.S. spending was lowest when viewed as a percentage of gross national product.

The report seeks to refute the contention that private investment can be a substitute for foreign aid. Most foreign direct investment goes to just a handful of countries in Asia and Latin America, it says.

The report also points to significant differences in the way aid recipients spend the money they receive. In Thailand, Ghana and Nicaragua, governments spend more than a quarter of their gross national product on health and education. Egypt, China and Pakistan spend less than 5 percent.

The report renews questions about the usefulness of global summits, which have occurred at the rate of more than one a year since a 1990 meeting on issues affecting children. The most recent, on housing and urban environments, ended last Friday.

The summits stimulate discussion and set performance benchmarks on social issues, which are regularly evaluated in well-publicized reports by U.N. agencies. But the promises made are not binding.

"If civil society fails to remind governments of the commitments they made, such declarations may never be implemented," the report says.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.