Aid and Development: A Brief Introduction. Book review of handy new bluffer’s guide

September 15, 2015 1 By Duncan Green

One of the best things about Aid and Development: A Brief Introduction, by Myles Wickstead, is the user-friendly aid and devt coverformat: a 90 page basic introduction to the aid system from World War Two to the SDGs, followed by a 65 page compendium of 20 ‘key words and concepts’ from aid effectiveness to the UN system.

Another plus is the author: Myles is a charming UK government mandarin, with stints as ambassador in Ethiopia and running the office for the Commission for Africa (2004-5). He writes in the crisp, no frills style of ministerial briefings, guiding the reader through the bewildering labyrinth of the aid system’s evolution – a succession of high level meetings, working groups, summits and commissions that both nudge and reflect the shifting agenda. So the book talks us through the transitions from Cold War to conditionalities; from East-West to North-South; from G8 to G20; from national to global public goods; from giving aid to overall policy coherence for development.

The book brings home the crucial role of ‘critical junctures’ in shaping the aid system. These are born of the interaction of long term processes with trigger events, as when World War Two eclipsed British power amid surging calls for decolonization, or when the Global Financial Crisis combined with the rising power of the BRICS to produce a rapid transition from G8 to G20 as the global steering committee.

Reading the book got me thinking about the Overton Window, aka the range of ideas the public will accept at any given point. This evolves over time – sometimes quite rapidly, as in the case of attitudes to homosexuality and equal marriage.

Not as true as it was in the Cold War

Not as true as it was in the Cold War

The connection with Myles is that people in NGOs live in constant danger of believing their own rhetoric. Because our echo chamber constantly bounces back our own voices on tax justice, gender rights, climate change or whatever, we can easily end up believing that decision makers are thinking and talking about the same stuff. Myles is a useful litmus test – if he says something that the activists are banging on about, it means it has least got as far as senior development officials. So when he concludes with a whole section on the limitations of GDP as a measure of well-being, that’s important – we’re getting somewhere.

Criticisms? It is very insider-ish. The procession of meetings, statements and agendas can get a little mind-numbing. I found myself yearning for some real life struggle. There is little discussion of how much (or why) developing country governments and others actually take any notice of aid conditions and all the other rules generated by the international aid circus (see my usual rant on the lack of evidence that the MDGs actually had much impact, and SDGs could go the same way). Oh and he repeats the meaningless ‘70% of the world’s poor are women’ stat, which shows he clearly doesn’t read this blog – unforgiveable.

But as a succinct introduction to the evolving aid system, it’s hard to beat.