The age of aid is over. It’s time to challenge embedded rich country narratives

The age of aid is over. It’s time to challenge embedded rich country narratives

By: Nick Dearden
Date: 15 September 2023

The age of aid is over. Many organisations, like my own, ran well-intentioned campaigns in the 1970s and ‘80s for rich nations to commit to budgets aimed at wiping out poverty. After centuries of slavery, empire, extraction and exploitation, such spending seemed the least the global north should offer to redress the problems political elites had unleashed on the world. Aid was part of a desire for a better world in an era of hope.

Today, we live in a different world. The 40-year project of hyper-globalisation, the integration of the whole world under the rule of the market, is collapsing. This project has fuelled the existential crisis we now face, not just in the global south but across much of the global north too. Hope is in short supply.

In this new reality, aid has lost political support and moral legitimacy. This erosion of support is partially a victim of a political campaign which would like to convince the populace that they have nothing to gain from helping others. But there are more legitimate reasons why so many have turned away from aid.

An insidious notion

Even at its best, aid could not hope to undo the damage simultaneously being wrought on the world by hyper-globalisation. Sadly, aid spending has not always been at its best. Too often, rich country governments use their budgets to entrench their own interests and force their own favoured economic model on people who have little to gain from it. Aid has sometimes been more about aiding big business, or providing funds for the pet projects of political elites, than the liberation of people from poverty and dependence.

And behind aid is an insidious notion, however subconscious, inherited from long years of empire, that we in the global north are heroic white saviours, doing our best to help the hopeless natives with whatever problems they’ve created for themselves. Far from the liberatory potential which development was supposed to offer, an opportunity to learn from history’s victims and redress wrongs, it turns out to be, yet again, about placing the generosity of the powerful at the centre.

A model of empowerment

As people everywhere retreat from hyper-globalisation, it’s vitally important we don’t retreat from the idea of international coordination and cooperation. And at the heart of this should stand Global Public Investment. Done right, GPI can not only begin to redress serious historical injustices, it can also bind us together in a common struggle for a dignified life for all. GPI is based on the same principle that drove the most transformative projects in our history, which delivered public healthcare, education, housing and pensions provision: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

This is not an aid model, but a model of empowerment and dignity upon which a much better society can be built.

“Global Public Investment can not only begin to redress serious historical injustices, it can also bind us together in a common struggle.”

GPI in action

GPI is needed to help tackle very different challenges all across the world, some immediately global in scope, others more context specific, all linking to internationally agreed objectives. While the Millennium Development Goals set goals for poorer countries that richer countries were to help achieve, the Sustainable Development Goals approach means all countries must work towards a universal set of goals, going beyond eradicating extreme poverty (mostly located in the global south) and responding to growing inequality and unsustainability everywhere.

We are entering a new era in history, where our planetary security will hang upon the extent to which we can improve international cooperation to ensure the supply of essential global public goods and services (such as vaccines in a pandemic), to protect the global commons (such as the ice caps), and to secure the right technology, infrastructure and institutions.


The need for sustainable and ‘green’ economies, rather than dirty growth, has become a glaring issue of practical and political concern for countries at all income levels. Climate finance has so far fallen far short of what is needed. Climate justice demands a new kind of global solidarity, supported by a new type of global public financing framework. Any variant of a global green ‘new deal’ will require public investment in green technology and infrastructure that can be shared in an equitable way among all countries.


The recent global COVID-19 pandemic has proven beyond any doubt the urgent need for more global cooperation in the health sector. Weak health systems and infrastructure across the globe will continue to provide fertile ground for future pandemics to spread quickly and be difficult to prevent and manage. Sufficient public money is needed to develop and sustain health and community systems that are universally accessible based on need rather than ability to pay. An increasing number of reports in the health sector are promoting the GPI approach, either explicitly or implicitly.


Overlapping crises are making the lives of billions of people on the planet more precarious with millions pushed into hunger in the last few years. As the climate crisis continues to worsen, half of all people in need of humanitarian assistance (about 150 million people) live in countries with high levels of vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. A new system of global insurance would not replace the need for humanitarianism, poverty reduction or relief work, but it would mean that when a crisis strikes, there are pre-approved resources in place to address it.

Care & social protection

There are increasing calls for a new approach to economic progress which centres Care, while the pandemic has reminded us that while some countries have social protection schemes that provide their citizens with a measure of insurance against crisis moments, no such thing exists at the global level. Social Protection is one area of attention where a GPI approach could be quickly adopted. Discussions are underway to develop a Global Fund for Social Protection, but it is still often couched in a traditional north-south ‘aid’ narrative. A GPI approach could mean a fund fit for the 21st century.

This article is Nick Dearden’s contribution to Time for Global Public Investment: Leaders and experts rethink sustainable development finance, published today by the Global Public Investment Network. 

Photo: UN Photo/Cia Pak (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)