Is aid to middle-income countries really wrong?

The House of Commons International Development Committee published its report on European Union development aid spending last week. The report is pretty sensible, highlighting some real concerns, some failures, as well as the successes and positives of EU development assistance. But one issue struck me, highlighted as it was by appearing almost at the very start of the analysis. Whilst praising the focus of the European Development Fund (EDF) and the European Commission’s humanitarian aid spending on poverty reduction (and ‘value for money’), there was criticism of European Commission official development assistance (oda – the official term for international development ‘aid’) for failing to sufficiently target the world’s poorest countries. The report also noted that funding to middle-income countries (for example Turkey, through the European Neighbourhood Partnership Instrument) counted towards the 0.7% target for donor aid.

The criticisms of the Parliamentary Committee make sense, in a way. With limited funds available (despite the British aid budget being one of the few spending commitments to not only be protected, but increased), heightened public scepticism and hostility to UK’s aid spending, and the consequent demand for that spending to yield demonstrable results, focusing on the world’s poorest and the world’s poorest countries would seem logical. And it also seems to make sense that the world’s poorest will be in the world’s poorest countries (there is a reason these countries are the poorest, after all).

But is spending in middle-income countries a sleight of hand to get donors closer to the 0.7% target? Can we so easily assume that the world’s poorest do live predominantly in the world’s poorest countries? If Andy Sumner is correct in suggesting that almost three quarters of the ‘bottom billion’ live in middle-income countries, that logic no longer seems quite so sure, and criticising aid spending to middle-income countries suddenly doesn’t seem quite so obvious.

This does not detract from the importance of focusing on the world’s poorest countries (around 28% of the world’s poor live in low-income countries according to Sumner’s research) but does call into question a policy approach that suggests poverty reduction can solely or even primarily be addressed by looking only to such regions. It may also be that policies addressing the needs of the world’s poorest may differ according to where they are based. Aid may well remain the most significant response in low-income countries, but not necessarily in middle-income ones where there might be a legitimate expectation that national governments will do more themselves to address poverty and inequality. But Sumner’s research reminds us that we need to avoid lazy assumptions, and perhaps even question the very categories of low- and middle-income countries.

But this is more than a taxonomic game, interesting in the abstract but of little relevance in guiding policy. The debate on what will replace the MDGs has already begun in earnest. At the very least, it will have to grapple with the presence of large numbers of the very poor in not-so-poor countries, as much as those living in officially labelled low-income countries. It will have to ensure that international development policy rests not on conventional wisdoms but on evidence. And donors will have to find a way to explain to their electorates why spending money in countries that don’t look to be as poor as others is nonetheless a legitimate and essential focus for development aid.

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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