The Independent View: Sorry ActionAid – it’s time to put people in charge of their own development

This is a response article to ‘The Independent View: Centre Forum is wrong about aid – UK aid makes a difference’ by Centre Forum’s Pauline Dixon and Paul Marshall

Failure to allocate international aid more effectively on a rising budget will lead to a rapid decline in public support for it. This is what the CentreForum paper ‘International aid and educating the poorest’ seeks to address, and this is why ActionAid’s concerns about our paper, set out last week on Lib Dem Voice, are misplaced.

We are not opposed to international aid (ActionAid comes close to implying we are). Nor do we oppose the government’s commitment to meeting the UN aid target of 0.7% of GNI. Our paper, which is modest in scope, is about making sure that aid reaches those who need it most through school voucher programmes at grassroots level. Education vouchers go straight to the user and have long been shown to provide the largest achievement gains for the most disadvantaged students in developed and developing economies.

There is no escaping the fact that aid directed to governments has a dismal record compared with aid directed to individuals. ActionAid’s failure to acknowledge this comes as no surprise. Over the years, they have continually argued against private sector involvement in the design and delivery of basic services, and in doing so they have proven themselves to be out of touch with developments on the ground. An increasing amount of research shows that there is often a better quality, private alternative to aid between governments.

We want to make three points in response to the ActionAid article. The first is about the growing number of children in developing countries accessing public education. ActionAid says that “Ghana and Rwanda are now on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal guaranteeing universal primary education by 2015”. But this is both misleading and a little bit worrying. The figures are skewed by the transfer of pupils to government schools from private unrecognised (or unregistered) schools. And recent research suggests that after the introduction of free primary education in countries like Ghana and Rwanda fewer children attended school due to the crowding out of private unaided schools that had not been on any official lists.

Secondly, the fact that more children are now enrolled in government schools fails to take into account concerns over the very low quality of education that many of these children are receiving. Bums on seats does not denote quality. Even reports published by DfID acknowledge that the “expansion of basic services has often been accompanied by a deterioration in quality”.

Thirdly, extensive research shows that private unaided schools outperform government schools at a fraction of the teacher cost and are the preferred choice of many poor families. The peer reviewed and reported research upon which our paper is based looks at five countries testing over 24,000 children in both government and private schools for the poorest. Census and survey information has been carried out in slums around the world to gather data, and education vouchers have been shown in randomized control trials to benefit the very poorest in achievement gains.

Evidence based policy is of the utmost importance. It is time that ActionAid drops the philosophical baggage and considers putting people in charge of their own development. Let’s continue to allow UK aid to make a difference. We have never argued otherwise. We are just proposing a more effective and efficient way of allocating it.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • I don’t know anything about this issue but on the face of it, it’s hard to understand why a charity would be so desperate for the government to be running services given that governments in many poor countries are corrupt ( a key reason why development is hampered). Why would they run schools and hospitals as best they can if they are corrupt in other services?

  • Simon McGrath 20th Sep '11 - 5:13pm

    An excellent idea.
    I wonder if it could work in the UK……..

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