Thursday, November 03, 2005

Foreign Aid 2: Circuitous and Leaky Process

Official Development Assistance (ODA), or more popularly known as "foreign aid", is government to government; more specifically, resource transfer from rich country governments to poor country governments. The aid or assistance is in the forms of technical assistance, grants and loans. The first two forms of aid are small compared to foreign loans.

The biggest aid-giving bodies are the multilateral institutions -- the United Nations (UN) through its various agencies (UNDP, FAO, UNICEF, WHO,...), the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the regional development banks like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), European and African Development Banks. Some bilateral institutions like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) are also big lenders to many poor country governments. Except for the IMF which gives out loans to countries experiencing balance of payment crisis like hemorrhaging foreign debt and downward spiralling currency depreciation, the above foreign aid banks and institutions are mainly engaged in project financing, mostly in physical and social infrastructure projects.

Citizens of rich countries finance those foreign aid institutions in the form of high taxes. The target beneficiaries are supposedly the citizens of poor countries. This does not happen all the time. Before foreign aid money reaches the poor in the developing countries, the money passes through several layers of bureaucracies first. These are (a) the legislators and Foreign Affairs Ministry of donor countries, (b) the personnel and consultants of multilateral and bilateral aid institutions, (c) the presidents and legislators of poor country governments who prepare and appropriate budgets, and (d) the local politicians and national bureaucrats of poor country governments who implement the projects.

This circuitous process often results in a number of wastes, if not outright theft by corrupt and irresponsible government leaders, and high spending on salaries and perks of consultants, from economists to engineers, from physicians to agriculturists, and so on. So that while American taxpayers shoulder some $16 billion per year of foreign aid to many governments around the world through the UN, WB, IMF, ADB and other regional development banks, and its own US Agency for International Development (USAID), only a fraction (often a small fraction) of this money really reach the poor in developing countries in the form of roads and medicines for malaria.

What is noticeable in these foreign aid institutions is that while their existence, including the salaries and perks of their personnel and consultants, are 100% financed by taxes, said people are not subject to income taxes; their importations like vehicles are not subject to import tax and possibly, other consumption taxes like or excise tax and value-added tax.

Foreign loans almost always require counterpart funds. Hence, taxes by citizens of rich countries should be matched by taxes of citizens of poor countries. Often, the ratio of foreign loans to counterpart funds is 50-50. This partly explains why leaders and consultants of foreign aid institutions and banks are either silent if not outrightly supporting tax hikes in poor countries. The case of expanded and hike in value added tax (VAT) in the Philippines is one example. The WB's country director is very vocal in supporting the VAT expansion and hike, along with a number of local consultants who have regular consulting work with foreign aid institutions and government agencies.

If foreign aid is circuitous and leaky, what are the alternatives?

Cut taxes in both rich and poor countries, let the citizens spend their own money on things and services they deem important. If citizens of rich countries experience income tax cuts, they will not burn the savings. They will use the money to buy more products and services from other countries, including poor countries, from mangos and bananas to hiring more nurses and food shop waiters. Or they will use the money to visit more tropical beaches and mountain resorts in the poor countries, which expands employment opportunities in the developing world. The money transfer here is more direct from rich country citizens to poor country citizens. The middlemen under "more foreign aid" framework -- the politicians and bureaucrats in both donor and borrowing countries, the consultants and bureaucrats in foreign aid institutions -- will not go hungry because many of them are talented enough to find other jobs, to shift to entrepreneurship under a regime of low taxes, small bureaucracy economy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Nonoy,

Good post.

I met a Japanese academic who works for the Japanese government as a consultant auditing their ODA-funded projects in the Philippines. He told me that 40% of the projects are failures because of fraud, corruption and sometimes just bad planning. Afterall, it is usually the receiving country's officials who decided what projects to recruit donations for, and these may not always be the objectively the best projects for the Philippines, say. They may just be the best projects for the officials in question.

The biggest problem with these ODA projects is that are top-down with out-of-touch national bureaucrats in one country conferring with out-of-touch national bureaucrats in another country and deciding what a third group, say the locals in Zambalese, need.

For a better system we should take a clue from the fact that the US donates more money to devoloping countries through private organizations -- say the Red Cross -- then its government donates in tax money to other governments. There should be dollar-for-dollar tax credits for charitable donations for all citizens to non-profit organizations helping people around the world. These credits would be paid for by a dollar for dollar deduction in ODA grants from the tax-payers country. In other worlds, if Americans donate 10 million dollars directly to small NPOs in developing countries, the American ODA will be reduced by $10 million.

Bruce in Iloilo