UN official: Political interests are increasingly driving aid policy

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Aid is being increasingly driven by donors' political, economic or military objectives rather than prioritising the needs of its recipients, according to Ross Mountain, the UN secretary-general's deputy special representative to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ross Mountain is the UN secretary-general's deputy special representative to the Democratic Republic of Congo and director-general of Development Assistance Research Associates (DARA. He is the author of a report on the effectiveness of humanitarian aid.

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Mark Grassi.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You have just presented DARA's report on humanitarian aid effectiveness. How is this measured?

This a humanitarian aid report measuring member states against the principles most of them signed up to in 2003 [under the Principles and Good Practice of Good Humanitarian Donorship agreement signed by all EU member states and the European Commission in Stockholm].

There are 23 of these principles on what constitutes good humanitarian donorship, meaning assistance that addresses the recipient's needs irrespective of political, security or other considerations. It also takes into account how governments can take support measures to protect civilians who are at risk, what lessons can be learnt and how donors can assist in preventing disasters.

Thinking about the 'politicisation' of aid, as described in your report, is there an advantage to being a multilateral donor like the EU, rather than being a bilateral one?

We have seen that the politicisation of aid is far more a phenomena of bilateral policies. ECHO has done well, being able to avoid some of the pitfalls of governments who are engaged in different conflicts with very specific foreign policy concerns. These governments are tending to try and use what should be impartial aid towards more partial goals.

Are member states more likely to want to distribute humanitarian aid than development aid, due to its visibility?

It is certainly true that humanitarian aid captures the public imagination more than longer-term development aid.

In my experience, a lot of governments are keen to show that a sign is up on the school that they built, or road they helped construct. In the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I have seen thickets of signs put up at an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp from NGOs as well. They are an affront to aid effectiveness and there should be a limit to the number that can be put up.

What is important is the impact of the aid. Taxpayers should know what happens – there should be reporting back on its effectiveness.

Your report will also address linking short-term humanitarian aid to longer-term development goals. To what extent are EU aid policies coherent with its Common Agricultural Policy or migration policies?

We didn't analyse those policies specifically, but we would caution against trying to get too much artificial coherence from them. Those in the humanitarian business want to get out of it. We want to encourage the capacity of governments and civil society on the ground to be able to deal with emergencies and be able to get reconstruction underway.

The coherence should be on the ground. One of the dangers of governments' approach is that aid is seen from the donor's point of view rather than the point of view of the recipients. We would argue for an approach that emphasises them with individually-tailored aid.

A famous dictum says that foreign aid means 'poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries'. Is that so in the case of the EU?

No, bad aid – aid that is tordu, as you say – would probably do that. Our concern is to focus on the recipient and ensure they get help respective of their needs and not other criteria.

But isn't there a dilemma in deciding whether or not to provide aid according to standards of governance?

We are addressing humanitarian aid, which should not be tied to anything. It needs to address immediate life-saving needs.

Governments sometimes withhold aid in countries governed by people they don't like. But from a political perspective, we want to bring them back into the global community. What is the interest in withholding aid from their populations, if they are then of ill health and poorly educated when they finally do come in? They would then suffer twice, having lived under governments that are less than friendly and then be denied international assistance. It wouldn't be fair.

Do we sometimes see humanitarian aid conflicting with longer-term development goals?

As simplistic as it sounds, humanitarian aid is that needed by people in particular areas.

There is an argument for taking preventative measures of course – working to build national capacity in countries that are frequent victims of natural disasters or storms is certainly much more effective than waiting for them to happen on our TV screens and getting an outpouring of money.

Building a hospital, for example, is not a short-term response. We need to make sure that it is sustainable in terms of staff and maintenance, rather than building white elephants. Getting countries to provide for their own populations without the intervention of the international community is the goal.

Can you give us examples of projects or programmes which have been most and least effective in your vast experience?

We have seen in Afghanistan (where DARA reports aid being used to 'win hearts and minds' is putting organisations at risk of being targeted) that support tends to go to areas where countries have particular interests and are not under the control of the central government or coalition forces. That is one glaring example.

But things are always relative. The 'generosity' of donors is calculated as a percentage of GDP, but there are other criteria. We are seeking to help aid be more effective for the beneficiary – and that also means being more effective for the taxpayers in the donor countries. It is a misuse of money on the behalf of taxpayers if aid is supporting political objectives.

Do we see a truly 'European' representation in the distribution of aid abroad, or are officials from certain member states working in certain recipient countries?

What I am concerned with is the impact of the aid, not what label is on it. Giving aid publicly is a rather demeaning process for the recipient; it is like saying that the people and government of a country cannot provide for themselves and so we need international organisations coming in.

But what is often overlooked in most international aid programmes is that the vast majority of workers in those programmes are nationals of the recipient country. So the EU may provide the funding, but it must take full capacity of the potential available on the ground.

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