I am of Indian origin, born in Canada and now a naturalised British citizen and I am a primary beneficiary of the British and Commonwealth system: my grandfather got an Indian Commonwealth Scholarship to complete a PhD in the 1960s in Canada; both my parents grew up in India at British-styled schools and received their PhD education in the US; they both now reside in the UK where my father leads a British university. I had the fortune of going to a public school in London and studied at the University of Cambridge; after which I joined a DFID funded NGO called FSD Africa in Kenya and continue to live in Kenya but now work with two Cambridge professors on a social venture (Katikati) about improving the way aid organisations communicate with their beneficiaries to promote greater feedback and accountability. I am deeply grateful to the opportunities afforded to me by the British system but also, as I will elaborate, aware of the costs for which these have been won and who has borne the brunt of them. This is the perspective from which I share, and I apologise if I sound ungrateful or harsh at times but it is hard not to when you live in Kenya with friends and colleagues who suffer the consequences.
The UK's history of growth, ingenuity and world domination is coupled with a history of conquering, brutality, and world oppression. The two are interlinked. The UK's active role in many colonies’ dates back to only one generation. In Kenya, where I have lived for 3 years, the memory of British rule remains greatly alive and visible. But the impact of UK's pillage, oppression and rule lingers on today. Both in the consequences of acts back then but also to continued geo-political efforts made today. The US's role in African politics, from Lumumba to present day Kenyan politics remains subtle, subversive but strong. The UK's is similar with the power of UK trade and policies continues to determine and undermine local decision making in Kenya. The role of aid is one such lever with the Kenyan government ceding many trade terms to be favourable to the UK. I cannot give you great detailed specifics beyond confirming this is the sentiment held by many Kenyans and undoubtedly leverage used by FCDO.
This is all to say, from a moral perspective, the UK has a duty to provide support to a world which it has benefited greatly from (often at the consequence of others). Further, it is an immense opportunity to create the kind of liberal world which enables human flourishing as the UK public now subscribe to.
To such a general question, the fair answer could only be: somewhat.
The successes of aid are greatly spoken about, and it is detailed in many newspapers and government reports, I won't expand on that. Other than to say, many such 'impact reports' do not materialise when you go and actually speak to the supposed 'beneficiaries'.
As to aid's limits: international aid perpetuates existing power structures (which arose from colonial structures, i.e., divide and conquer through tribal politics) by providing funds to support oppression and legitimacy to the nation's sovereignty and thereby the country's leader, elected democratically or otherwise. Pierre Englebert's 'Africa Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow' details the consequences and arguments for this. Dambisa Moyo's 'Dead Aid' notion of aid dependency in African governments is very real and prevents the long-term structural changes needed to produce independent and growing countries. Aid is also controlled by predominantly Western, predominantly white and predominantly male figures. This has great consequences for the crucial representation of local voices in the problem identification and solution creation; it is also why long-term impacts of aid are so hard to identify because they have not been sustainably changed.
I am a skeptic, not of aid's potential which is immense, but to current practices. I host a podcast on which I discuss this precise issue with Kenyans and Expats in the development space to chart out the issues but also concrete ways to improve (it is called The Development Dilemma https://kite.link/the-development-dilemma).
What I find rather curious is that Western liberal democracies take the least democratic approach to their international aid approach. I sincerely believe that democracy is a really good thing! The people who know best how to improve their lives are the people themselves - this is a crucial foundation to the UK's success and governance.
Why not take these principles and apply them to international aid? We would allow the communities to vote and select the projects they deem to be the most valuable as they understand their context, they are also then able to hold the government (here it would be FCDO) accountable for these projects and thus place more pressure to ensure it delivers.
Amartya Sen's great work in Development as Freedom lays out in more detail why the process to achieve development is just as important the end outcome, because it is a fundamental component of it! Happy to expand further on request about this but there are far more erudite speakers on his work.
For the UK government accountability to UK taxpayers, I believe a great deal could be done to improve this. There should be a very clear and accessible dashboard with the desired outcomes, project timeline and costs - compared with realised levels. We should know how much is given to local vs UK/foreign entities and degree of local inclusion and consultation.
A 'gold standard' for something to aspire to would be the Norwegian or Swedish approach to aid. They have a much more locally driven approach to aid and better transparency.
The UK's aid spending as DFID was transparently for the benefit of the recipients; DFID was held in high regard and trusted as a neutral, best-practice, speaker on aid. Today, with FCDO and the ever-creeping self-interest in aid, this respect is being lost. Not to mention the UK defaulting on its promise to maintain the 0.75% aid target. It has been a sad evolution for something which otherwise has such potential for demonstrating the UK's generosity and commitment.
I have written far too much but thank you for allowing me to contribute to this inquiry. I deeply care about that others may benefit, as I have, from the British enterprise and as such, hope for UK aid to grow into the bastion of democratic, transparent and impactful aid the world desperately needs.
Arnav Kapur (email@example.com)