You can almost taste the irony. Oxfam, the unassailably moral darling of the charitable establishment, which has accused capitalism (from which it has profited substantially) of causing world poverty, was recently embroiled in a crisis involving its workers in Haiti exploiting young girls. We spend £13.5 billion on aid a year – enough to convince ourselves we are saving the world from our armchairs. But we have to ask ourselves if all that money is actually making a positive change. The answer may surprise you.  

Perhaps the most immediate indictment of modern charities is the way in which its employees have abused their position for sex. The Oxfam scandal is hardly the first incident. A 2006 Save the Children report about aid in Libya gives a voice to the actual recipients of aid, and their stories are not reassuring. The distribution of aid came along with a soaring teenage pregnancy rates, and a deluge of young girls entering prostitution. The clients? Without exception, parents pointed to NGO workers. As it became clear that aid inevitably came hand in hand with underage prostitution, communities resigned themselves to complacency about the new occupation of their children. It begs the question of who these supposedly virtuous NGO workers are – and Andrew MacLeod, former chief operator of the UN Emergency Coordination Centre, notes that paedophiles and sexual offenders use the righteous cover of charity work to abuse desperate women and children. If that sounds too grotesque to be true, try the Catholic Church on for size. 

 

Dictators thrive on misplaced aid money – for every child you teach to read, the local tyrant gets a new machine gun.

 

The charitable sector is a powerful lobby, that has, by manipulation of public opinion and fervent virtue-signalling, circumvented scrutiny. Charities like Oxfam and Save the Children receive Department for International Development funds. DfID employees are often former activists, usually with experience from – you guessed it – charities like Oxfam and Save the Children. Potential conflict of interest? Had Ministry of Defense employees been cutting their teeth at BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin, it may not have been swept under the rug so easily. But as problematic as charities are, national aid is hardly left unblemished. 

Zambian economist Dambisha Moyo has noted that during the last 50 years, the first world has given Africa $1 trillion in aid – but between 1970 and 1998, poverty in Africa rose from 11 percent to a staggering 66 percent. With no noticeable improvement of the average African’s fortunes, you have to ask where the money actually goes.

Aid money, especially from Western governments (and your taxes) often starts earmarked for ambitious projects, and end up in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats, crooks and strongmen – each bribe, donation or bonus a small price to pay for the greater good. Except that when the funds are spent, and the planned hospital, dam or school still hasn’t left the drawing board, the only thing you have achieved is buying into a system that keeps authoritarian regimes alive. Dictators thrive on misplaced aid money – for every child you teach to read, the local tyrant gets a new machine gun. Even in democracies, aid money reduces government incentives to fund socially advantageous programs – when foreign donors cover 40 percent of operating budgets in countries like Kenya and Uganda, schmoozing donors takes precedent over the welfare of countries’ citizens. 

There is no doubt that both government aid and charities have done tremendous good over the last half century. But in their current state, they will not save the world. Charities are rich and complacent, and national aid is misguided. If we really do care about making a significant difference in Africa, we have to start rethinking aid. If not, expect more of the same.