Discussing Ireland’s aid programme
In recent times, there have been a (admittedly small) number of media commentators questioning whether Ireland can afford to continue to give overseas aid, and whether aid actually works.
We at Dóchas welcome any opportunity to discuss the quality of aid from Ireland, as we are confident that our national efforts in this regard are of a very high standard indeed.
And more importantly, this is not just our view, it is the outcome of several independent and external reviews, including the OECD Peer Review of Irish Aid, and a recent EU-commissioned study which praised the Dóchas Code of Conduct for Irish NGOs as an example of how NGOs across the EU can work towards greater self-regulation.
In reality, therefore, overseas aid is one of the most evaluated and assessed areas of Government expenditure.
1. Oversight of Irish Aid
The €670 million or so that is allocated to “Official Development Assistance” (ODA) actually is two areas of expenditure: first, there is the budget for Irish Aid, the government’s aid agency, and then there is a budget for Ireland’s participation in international organisations such as the EU and UN bodies, which is administered via the various line Ministries, such as the Departments for Agriculture and Health.
Both these areas of Government spending on development assistance are currently subject to oversight by:
- the Comptroller and Auditor General,
- the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee,
- the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee,
- the Department of Foreign Affairs Audit Committee, and
- the Department’s Evaluation and Audit Unit.
This is what Irish Aid has to say about its Accountability:
“The management and expenditure of an expanding budget is a significant responsibility for Irish Aid. Like most public expenditure, the Irish Aid budget is voted expenditure, authorised by a vote of the Dáil each year (Vote 39 – International Cooperation), and must be managed in accordance with the public financial procedures governing the use of State resources.
In addition to the requirements of public financial procedures, rigorous systems are required to ensure full accountability and value for money for activities under all headings of the Irish Aid programme. The Evaluation and Audit Unit maintains the evaluation and audit function of Irish Aid. The process of internal audit provides assurances to management as to the effectiveness of the systems of internal control of Irish Aid and that public funds are being spent in accordance with the objectives of the programme. The evaluation reports of the E & A Unit are available to the public.
An Annual Report on Ireland’s Development Cooperation Programme, including detailed accounts of expenditure, has been published since 1978. The Annual Report is laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas on publication.”
In addition to the Government’s development cooperation programme, people in Ireland also contribute to overseas aid – and do so generously – through the work of Ireland’s Development NGOs.
2. Ensuring “value for money”
Irish NGOs have clear criteria and views about what “effective aid” is: it must be carefully targeted, and must be based on the real needs of the people and communities it is trying to serve. Aid must be focused on helping people in developing nations achieve long-term self-sufficiency, and must be based on the principles of human rights.
And aid must be managed along the highest standards of professionalism and accountability. Professionalism, accountability and “value for money” require investment in personnel, in management systems. Without research, monitoring and evaluation, and without meaningful participation of the beneficiaries, programmes are unlikely to succeed, and “value for money” may turn out to be “Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish”.
Furthermore, Irish NGOs understand that aid works, but aid alone will not “develop” a country. At best, international development aid can provide support for a country’s internal processes of change and be a catalyst for change. Irish Development NGOs understand that their programmes can alleviate poverty at a small scale, but that they can only secure lasting improvements for the world’s poorest people if they can influence international political processes, by mobilising the skills, energies and power of others.
In short, accountability matters, when it comes to aid. And effectiveness matters when it comes to aid. And “effective” aid should be about working efficiently, and about finding effective – lasting – ways to end poverty.
And this is precisely why the members of Dóchas have come together to share their learning.
Our members – which include all the major Development NGOs in Ireland – believe that they must always seek to enhance the quality of their work, and that they must work together in a coordinated way.
Through Dóchas, NGOs are seeking new and effective ways to maximise their impact, by making use of the power and ideas of all those who can make a difference – governments, companies, media and NGOs.
Greater coordination and coherence does not mean giving up our diversity. In fact, we believe that our strength lies in our diversity of approach and our ability to respond flexibly to the changing needs of the people we serve. Yet, our members are committed to the core professional standards that they share, and they understand the potential for bringing together the energies and expertise of others.
3. The role of Government in “Development”
Irish charities and their overseas partners can play a critical role. The tireless efforts of missionary organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have saved countless lives and they have had widespread success in strengthening African civil society groups.
But they cannot – and should not – hope to do the job of government. NGOs can build schools or train teachers, but governments must determine curricula and education priorities. Charities can provide food aid and agricultural support, but governments must regulate markets. Aid workers can provide loans to micro-businesses, but governments set the legal framework.
As we can see from so-called failed states such as Afghanistan and Somalia, without government people can survive, but there will be no development. Aid agencies can provide temporary relief, but to bring about lasting change, government needs to be on board.
Researchers – from the World Bank and Transparency International to people like Wolfgang Kasper, Joseph Stiglitz or Amartya Sen – have shown time and again that cutting aid to oppressive regimes does not reduce injustice or oppression.
Yet there is ample proof that working through government does deliver vital services for people in poverty. When the Tanzanian government got international assistance to abolish school fees in 2001, the number of children enrolled in primary schools rose from 4.4 million to 7.5 million in 2005. The figures in Uganda are similar. According to the UN, public spending on education in sub-Saharan Africa continues to grow, and enrolment levels in primary schools are up by 36 per cent. There is simply no way that NGOs could have achieved this type of impact – only governments can operate at this scale.
There are no blank cheques and no one gives aid unconditionally. Stringent processes are followed in planning how aid money will be best invested and how it will be accounted for.
If we want to bring about lasting improvements for the poor, we need to strengthen governments, and those who keep an eye on them. And that is exactly what aid from Ireland is doing.
All this is a very long way of saying that we believe the work of the Dóchas members is of a very high standard, and that people in Ireland have every reason to be proud of our efforts in this area.
During his visit to Ireland, US President Barack Obama praised Ireland for its overseas aid programme, saying that Ireland has showed that it is willing “to assume a heavier burden of responsibility on the world stage.“ Obama made comparisons between Ireland’s past and the plight of starving people in developing countries today. He said: “Today, a people who once knew the pain of an empty stomach now feed those who hunger abroad” and that Ireland “punches above its weight” in terms of the work it does internationally on issues such as peacekeeping, hunger and human rights. He insisted that it “makes a strong difference around the world.”
It would seem, therefore, that he considers that our overseas aid programme is an important part of our international reputation as a nation, an asset to our nation.
It is indeed important to safeguard this asset, and we would welcome any ideas and contributions that can help ensure that Ireland does its utmost to end extreme poverty at the earliest possible moment.