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Aaron McKenna: Should we turn off the tap of Irish aid to other countries?

So €4m in Irish aid may have been misappropriated in Uganda. Can we afford to keep giving – or can we afford to stop?

Aaron McKenna

THE POSSIBLE MISAPPROPRIATION of millions of euro in Irish aid spending in Uganda by the local regime tells a sad story about a blighted people being ripped off by their own leaders. It also raises questions for us, as aid givers, as to how we should be disbursing our money in these countries that must suffer ignoble governments.

Ireland has suspended the €34million in aid we send to Uganda, pending a probe into the missing €4million that seems to have ended up resting in some bank accounts it shouldn’t. Trying to help the people of Uganda is a Sisyphean task: A nation of 36 million people with a nominal GDP of $477 per capita, versus the $47,513 we enjoy; and appearing 166th on the Human Development Index versus our 7th position, Uganda is a country in need of a helping hand.

For the €34million we’re sending them, the country is spending $740million on Russian military hardware, primarily on six Sukhoi SU-30 Flanker fighter jets. Not only is their government apparently corrupt, it has grandiose ambitions to be a military player; getting involved in the brutal war in the Congo and various other conflicts on their borders.

All this while the people of Uganda are ravaged by poverty and have a life expectancy not far over 50 years. It’s one of the key problems in distributing aid to some parts of the world: even when you go around governments, NGOs have to pay off local officials and slush money around into sticky fingers. Meanwhile, some leaders are squandering tens and hundreds of millions on their own ambitions and comforts.

Doctors and fighter jets

It’s not the fault of any of the 16 per 1,000 children who die before reaching adulthood (versus 3.6 per 1,000 here) that their government wants to buy fighter jets rather than hire more doctors. As a relatively well-off country we do have a moral obligation to those fellow travellers on this earth less fortunate than we are. This is something the Irish don’t need any government to tell us – the World Giving Index ranks us first in Europe and second in the world per capita for giving to charity as individuals, beaten only by the United States.

Ireland signed up to the UN goal of giving 0.7 per cent of our GDP to overseas aid. This year we set a target of disbursing €639 million, a reduction of €20 million on the year before but still quite a chunk of change (even though it’d hardly buy us six Russian fighter jets); 0.5 per cent of our GNP, a more accurate reflection of the size of the Irish economy when stripping out the multinationals.

When I first heard about the robbery of our money – essentially, of medicine and food for the Ugandan people – I thought, what an interesting case for cutting aid. If our money is being borrowed first by us and then robbed by tinpots on the far side, maybe we shouldn’t be borrowing the money at all. After all, wouldn’t our country recover faster if we cut the spending, didn’t borrow the money and deepen the hole we’ve to dig out of; allowing us to return to overseas aid later in an even bigger way?

‘Looking after our own’

The other well-worn argument for cutting aid is that we need to look after our own first. We’re short of nurses and doctors ourselves.

But I’ve spent some time this week looking at the work done with the help of Irish aid in Uganda and elsewhere, and it’s clear that we save a lot of lives. There are preventative medical and nutritional programs that are ridiculously cheap for every life preserved. For all the money that ends up buying off short-sighted, long-fingered officials, plenty more makes it to its end purpose.

I think that we need to be a bit more honest in our public discussion of overseas aid. When we say, ‘Cut it all, we can’t afford it’ we are effectively condemning people reliant on these programs to death. Forget about their backwards governments who won’t look after them, we can’t do much about them without a few fighter jets of our own. We need to consider that if we cut all €639 million to get back or save 10,000 nurses or gardaí at home we’d probably be condemning some unknown multiple of that to their doom.

Of course, cutting spending does that at home too. Cutting millions out of hospital budgets doesn’t just affect the paperclip allowance. So we have to strike a balance, delivering cuts to overseas aid but not throwing the baby – our desire to do good – with the bathwater – the greed of others.

Intervention?

We should probably also change our policy when it comes to disbursing aid, to keep it out of the hands of corrupt central governments. Hint number one that a government might not be the wisest with your money? Same president since 1986. We should give the money to NGOs operating on the ground and demand they be protected and left alone. For sure, some local official will always need a bribe. But not the Prime Minister.

We should probably also think about becoming a bit more interventionist – if we’re investing tens of millions in a country, lets invest some of it into education for the governing classes of tomorrow. Bad and all as we joke our civil service is, it’s world-class compared to some places. Let’s invest in these softer, long term solutions. Let’s meddle a bit.

Cutting our overseas aid is necessary as a part of the wider austerity Ireland is suffering. But I don’t believe, in good conscience, that if any of us visited one of these countries and saw the work being done in our names that we would feel so easy about suggesting that it’s a wasted €639 million that we would find easy to cut versus taking from our own.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie>

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