Most unelectrifying: The mainstream media’s fixation with aid

Most unelectrifying: The mainstream media’s fixation with aid

Date: 18 March 2015

As the Chancellor prepares to deliver his Budget to Parliament today, the UK government’s commitment to ring-fence aid seems to be the mainstream media’s sole focus when it comes to global poverty. It’s the same every year. The conservative press bashes the decision (making bizarre comparisons between what our nation spends on aid and what we spend on defence is this year’s favoured approach). Most progressive journalists want to defend it.

What a great shame. While I support aid in principle, it’s simply not that important compared to many other issues. For example, remittances are over three times larger than aid. So why can’t the media examine how the government may reduce the large money transfer fees that often plague remittances? Similarly, ‘developing and emerging economies’ lost $6.6 trillion as a result of illicit financial flows in the decade to 2012. So why can’t journalists analyse the government’s performance in tackling these nefarious flows?

If the media must talk about aid, it should focus on the quality of aid. Both the last major international agreement and the last major international meeting on aid effectiveness were strongly criticised by civil society. Moreover, there are certain issues that, while largely absent from the aid effectiveness agenda, are very important when considering aid quality. For instance how aid from the UK (and other rich countries) may be contributing to a new debt crisis. Or take economic policy conditionality, which is when poor countries are forced by the IMF, World Bank and other official donors to adopt certain (often neoliberal) economic policies in order to receive aid.

The UK officially ended attaching these sorts of conditions to its aid back in 2005 (although our government funds and supports the IMF and World Bank, who continue to utilise economic policy conditionality). So while there’s no suggestion that UK aid money is pushing the Nigerian government into privatising its electricity sector, serious concerns still exist about providing aid for this purpose, as Global Justice Now’s Christine Haigh argues in an excellent blog.

Clearly this is a crucial subject that reaches far beyond questions about the use of aid. Let me throw in my two pennies’ worth…

How private sector involvement impacts on access and quality of service in the electricity sectors of poor countries is difficult to assess. That’s because ‘involving’ the private sector in electricity provision can mean many different things in practice. What is clear is there are real dangers that poor people and rural dwellers can be ignored if the private sector does get involved. And there are important matters of principle here too. Realising human rights for all – including the right to electricity – shouldn’t be a servant to the profit motive. In addition, the electricity sector is inextricably intertwined with climate change, which can’t be left to businesses to deal with.

The situation from country to country is obviously very different and there is no one-size-fits-all model. State-owned energy is not necessarily the only solution – for example, locally-run energy cooperatives have proven a big success in many places such as Costa Rica and Germany. However, governments must always create and maintain a proper regulatory framework in order to protect people and planet.

Another advantage of community energy initiatives is that they can genuinely allow local citizens’ voices to be heard. More broadly, for energy systems to be truly democratic, we need to enable and encourage public debate. The media can play a valuable role in stimulating such debate. Just hope that the British media’s typical outputs on the Budget aren’t any sort of global standard!