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Credit where it’s due: good aid, bad news

Monday, 16 January 2017 15:29 GMT

Syrian refugees stand in line in Akre refugee camp in Akre, Iraq, as they await to collect cash assistance. May 17, 2016. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sebastien Malo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

UK media is wrong to say that cash transfers amount to free handouts of taxpayers' money

The recent report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) on direct cash transfers – where aid money goes straight to those who need it – concluded that the scheme, despite faults, was a proven method for reducing poverty. Cash transfers not only have a demonstrable impact on helping the world's poorest, critically, they provide "value for taxpayers' money".

So ICAI awarded the programme its second highest rating, Green-amber, and recommended the £201m programme be scaled up. That sounds like pretty good feedback to me.

The report was not all glowing - the ICAI sets a high bar. Green-amber translates as ‘satisfactory’. It ticked off the Department for International Development (DFID) which runs the scheme for a muddled strategic approach and stated more needed to be done to provide developing country governments with better ways to monitor the cash transfer scheme.

The diligent appraisal concluded that among the myriad of aid programs - many effective, some not - direct cash transfers were a very good thing and there should be more of them.

Some outlets ran the story straight, reporting that the aid watchdog had concluded that there are issues, but ultimately cash transfers had a positive impact on poverty levels, education, health nutrition and women’s empowerment.

Odd then, that others in the UK media latched onto the few negative points and ran headlines claiming the report condemned the programme as nothing more than a ‘free handout of UK taxpayers money’ and was being ‘exploited by fraudsters’ because DFID had failed to weed out corruption and other bad practices.

The NGO community no doubt felt the collective impact of another blow from a media that increasingly criticises and attacks aid, often, in a way that seems unfair, unbalanced or that wilfully misrepresents UK generosity overseas.

Yet, that’s not to say the sceptics don’t have a point. When articles are balanced and informed, constructive criticism highlighting examples of when aid could have done better is a good thing. It is right to demand that when DFID (and others) spend taxpayers’ money they meet the highest standards of accountability and transparency.

It is about media coverage that argues that aid can be better as well as offering criticism, not just highlighting single instances of poor performance or misspending. When the only story told is a negative one, it’s hard to fully believe some sections of the media.

For them, the Green-amber award was not good enough. The ICAI translates the score as 'shows satisfactory achievement in most areas, but partial achievement in others; an area where UK aid is making a positive contribution but could do more'.

Certainly not a gold star, but pretty good considering the complexity of aid delivery, and when compared to the frightful failings of other schemes; it was certainly not a disgraceful report card; and not a reason for the media to send DFID to its bedroom without any tea, forbidden to try to make the world a better place again.

Without question, UK taxpayers are right to expect the aid budget not only maximises impact but also delivers value for money every time, without fail – especially when they see their own services being cut.

Media scrutiny is key to drive these exacting standards until extreme poverty is finally defeated. That’s why a free media is vital; to ensure that NGOs and DFID strive towards excellence.

But the mirror must be reflected back at those who fail to live up to the high standards they expect of others. Few among the critics balanced their reports of the cash transfers review with the good and the bad. Fewer still highlighted the benefits of the programme in reducing hunger and increasing income levels.

Don’t taxpayers have a right to know their generosity is proven to boost education through reducing financial barriers, while also making people – particularly women – safer through giving them more financial independence?

Do newspapers not have a duty to detail how UK aid is giving more women more control over finances and offering life-saving school places to girls who would otherwise be lost to forced marriages, violence and deadly diseases?

Empowered and educated, women and girls are – thanks to cash transfers – speeding up development for themselves, for their families and their communities, building long-term prosperity and bringing security not just in their countries, but for the UK too. They can help us end extreme poverty faster, if we invest in them. That’s when we will see an end to foreign aid.

The ICAI report was right to call for the cash transfer scheme to be expanded. And if we agree that good is still not good enough, then we must all try harder to be excellent – including the media.