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Aid and NGOs in a globalised world

By Janet Hunt - posted Saturday, 15 September 2001

Let me start with a couple of givens:

1. Official development assistance is at an all time low globally; private sector investment is now at least six times the level of aid, but is concentrated mostly in about 14 countries, including China and other SE Asian and Latin American countries. It cannot compensate for the very low level of aid to many countries.

2. One of the consequences of the pressures of globalisation and the widening inequalities is that there are more complex humanitarian emergencies. They may appear related to religion or ethnicity, but there are strong economic pressures behind most of the major conflict zones. Secondly, natural emergencies are having more devastating impacts as more people are trying to eke out livings in environmentally fragile or vulnerable environments. So one obvious role for aid is simply to deal with the growing number of disaster responses required. A growing proportion of aid budgets is going on these crises responses, rather than long-term development.


The main point I want to make about aid, NGOs, and long-term development is that to regulate globalisation, and transform it to a globalisation which fosters human development, we need to have a countervailing force. That force is the UN human rights system and the development agreements made in the UN system through the series of UN Summits and Conferences in the 1990s. These present an alternative framework for globalisation which NGOs and aid should be supporting and promoting. I will suggest that not all aid currently contributes to these goals, and NGOs must support those elements of aid which do, but critique those which contribute to the neo-liberal economic approach.

Let me start with the Human Rights System, which has been under criticism in Australia in the last week, but which many NGOs see as the key countervailing force in relation to orthodox economic globalisation. If economic institutions are pursuing policies which are leading to the undermining of human rights, what can we do?

The UN system is increasingly placing greater emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, but the difficulty is that there is no effective mechanism for enforcement of these rights. The Special Rapporteur on Education, speaking in Geneva in June, discussed what could be done in relation to the requirement to pay user fees in primary schools in Mozambique, which is depriving some children of their right to education. She said that if she raised this with the Mozambican Government, they would tell her that this was a requirement of their Structural Adjustment Loan from the World Bank and IMF. So we need to go to the decision-makers in those institutions - the Executive Directors of the Bank and IMF - to ask them why they are supporting policies which contradict the upholding of human rights standards their countries accept.

So the role of aid, where it is used for loans in support of structural adjustment programs, should be to support, not reduce, peoples’ ability to enjoy their human rights.

The second area to focus on is how aid and NGOs can support the implementation of the set of UN goals agreed through the whole series of UN Conferences held in the 1990s, where widespread government agreements were made. We do not have to reinvent these - they are there, and agreed by governments already. I am thinking of the Earth Summit (Rio de Janiero), The World Conference on Women (Beijing), The Social Development Summit (Copenhagen), Children’s Summit (New York), Population and Development Conference (Cairo), Education for All Conference (Jomtien, Thailand), and of course the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna).

Many of the key goals from these conferences have also been encapsulated in the summary goals of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (the aid donor countries club). These are to achieve:

  1. The proportion of people living in poverty in developing countries reduced by at least one-half by 2015.
  2. Universal primary education in all countries by 2015.
  3. Elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005.
  4. The death rate for infants and children under the age of five years reduced in each developing country by two-thirds the 1990 level by 2015.
  5. The rate of maternal mortality reduced by three-fourths the 1990 level by 2015.
  6. Access to reproductive health services for all individuals of appropriate ages including safe and reliable family planning methods, as soon as possible and no later than the year 2015.
  7. A national strategy for sustainable development, in the process of implementation in every country by 2005 to ensure that current trends in the loss of environmental resources are reversed at both global and national levels by 2015.

Development assistance can play a very positive role to help countries develop policies and implement programs to achieve these goals. But the emphasis must be on how aid dollars are used.

Aid programs and projects should themselves enhance peoples’ human rights, especially the rights of women and children.

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This paper was first presented to the Development Challenges in a Global Economy Conference, Melbourne, 7 September 2000.

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About the Author

Janet Hunt is Executive Director of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA).

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