Foreign Aid FAQs – #8 “Why has nothing been achieved?”

The fight to eradicate global poverty has been going on for decades. Yet despite all the money that has been donated and all the work that has been done, international development charities are still running adverts showing how horrendous the situation is in some countries around the world and asking for money to help. This is understandably frustrating – What on Earth did they spend all that money on if not to solve this problem? you may think, Either they wasted the money or they’re too incompetent to spend it correctly – either way, they’re not getting any more of my money!

The first thing to say in response to this is that an enormous amount has been achieved in the field of international development. For example, below are some key achievements of UK foreign aid since 2011:[1]

  • 11 million children supported into education.
  • 30 million people prevented from going hungry.
  • 7 million malaria nets distributed.
  • 5 million people given access to clean water and sanitation.
  • 67 million children immunised against preventable diseases.
  • 13 countries supported to have freer and fairer elections.

Yet despite all this progress, the task is far from complete. Poverty has not been eradicated, and billions of people around the world still have a standard of living which is far below what most people in the developed world experience.

So why has this issue not been solved yet? Part of the reason is the sheer scale of the problem. More than 60% of the world’s population live on less than $7.40 a day – the amount which it has been calculated is required to achieve normal human life expectancy of just over 70 years.[2] That’s about 4.2 billion people. Each year, rich countries spend around $125 billion on foreign aid, which is an awful lot of money. But divide this by 4.2 billion people and it works out at just $30 each per year, or $0.08 a day. So while the generosity of people in the developed world has meant that a large amount of money is devoted to tackling global poverty each year, unfortunately it is still not enough given the scale of the problem.

Another reason is that global poverty is an ongoing problem. For instance, vaccinating children against preventable diseases is not a one-time fix, but something that needs to be done again and again for each new generation. Lots of work has been done to get developing countries to a stage where they are self-sufficient, for example South Korea was previously an aid recipient but is now not only self-sufficient but is itself an aid donor. However, until this is achieved for every country, some will still require ongoing assistance.

Climate change is undoing some of the good work which has been done over the years, and is creating additional work which needs to be done. Developing countries have been hit hardest by climate change, having to cope with more frequent extreme weather events and droughts, and falling crop yields. They are having to spend a lot of money just adapting to climate change, never mind actually improving their situation. For example, climate change adaptation costs Sub-Saharan African countries a total of $10.6 billion a year.[3]

Progress in eradicating global poverty has not been as rapid as we may have liked because of growing global inequality. The gap between rich and poor has been steadily growing to the point where now 8 billionaires have the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.[4] This extreme level of inequality is a major barrier to developing countries reaching a point where they are self-sufficient.

It’s important to be honest about the limitations of aid. The sheer scale of global poverty means that charity alone cannot solve the problem. Nor can it, when what is given to developing countries with one hand in the form of foreign aid is taken with the other through debt repayments, repatriation of corporate profits, tax avoidance, unjust trade rules, land grabs, etc. (see this article for more information).

Aid and charity have an important part to play in the eradication of poverty, but they must be accompanied by the creation of a global policy environment which supports developing countries and gives them a fair chance at catching up with their rich counterparts, rather than the current policy environment which is rigged in favour of the rich and has allowed an ever greater proportion of global wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a few. Only when this is achieved will we be able to eradicate global poverty for good.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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