The world is changing. Fast. Over the past 20 years in my home country of Ghana, poverty levels have been halved, child mortality has declined significantly, and strides in governance have helped make it one of the leading democracies in Africa. I’ve witnessed this progress as a member of parliament, government minister and, most recently, transparency advocate.
These successes are the products of foreign direct investment, political leadership, active civil society – and foreign aid.
Like Ghana, aid has seen lots of changes in recent years. With the expanded involvement of the private sector, use of innovations like cash transfers, and former aid recipient countries becoming donors themselves, some might say traditional aid is obsolete.
It is true that for countries like mine, foreign aid funds occupy a relatively small portion of our budgets compared with investments in our oil and cocoa sectors, or the money we raise through taxes; and that self-sufficiency is exactly what we are – and should be – aiming for. But many countries aren’t there yet.
While some might be ready to write off aid as a relic of the past, and look to other sources of revenue, for 47 countries aid remains the largest development finance flow. These countries are the least likely to attract investment and don’t yet have economies large enough to allow them to collect enough domestic revenue to meet their population’s needs. In these places, traditional aid is still important and relevant, especially if we expect to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and “leave no one behind”.
Aid should, of course, be used in conjunction with strategies to boost economic growth, but “trickle-down” economics does not work by default for the poorest and most marginalised communities, and we cannot rely solely on the momentum of economic growth to sweep us forward to meet the SDGs.
That said, we need aid done right. And a new Oxfam paper charts a way forward.
If we truly want countries like Ghana to continue on their paths of progress, and the poorest countries to catch up, we need a new vision for what aid should do. It needs to help countries mobilise and sustain financing for their own development priorities, while strengthening the ability of national institutions to deliver the development their citizens demand – especially the poorest. And it needs to help people escape poverty in a sustainable manner.
A former street child helps another child to wash at Streetwise, an organisation that helps street children, in Accra, Ghana. Photograph: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Getty Images
Development aid can, and should, support countries’ ability to lead their own development, and their citizens’ ability to hold their leaders accountable. Strengthening this “citizen-state compact” is central to achieving lasting development progress. And, as a form of public finance, aid can greatly support this process if it is targeted in a way that helps people gain greater decision-making power and creates space for civil society to monitor how aid money is spent.
This vision isn’t radical or entirely new. Donors have made commitments along these lines in the past. What we need them to do is to honour the commitments. The world is changing fast, but we can’t afford to leave the poorest in the dust. Last year my country joined with 192 other UN member states to sign on to the SDGs and agenda 2030. We agreed to leave no one behind and reach those furthest behind first. Aid, done well, is an indispensable tool in this effort. Let’s not throw away our chances by leaving it untouched in our toolbox.
Albert Kan-Dapaah, the writer, is a Ghanaian member of parliament and former minister.