'Worrying trend' as aid money stays in wealthiest countries

Hannah Summers
Migrants wait to be transported to a registration centre in Berlin in 2015. The amount Germany spends on hosting refugees doubled last year. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Global aid has reached a peak, according to figures released on Tuesday – but experts say “genuine” aid to the world’s poorest places has not risen, with much of the extra cash staying in Europe and rich countries elsewhere to cover the costs of the refugee crisis.

Development aid from 29 of the world’s wealthiest countries hit $142.6bn (£114bn) in 2016, a 9% increase from 2015. According to statistics published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, almost 2% of this rise remained in donor countries, including EU states, to deal with the cost of hosting refugees, which has surged by 27.5% since 2015 to reach $15.4bn.

The data also shows that aid to the least developed countries fell by 3.9% from 2015, with aid to Africa down by 0.5%.

Amy Dudd, director of the UK Aid Network, said that while the group welcomed the rise, the figures masked a worrying trend. “Aid globally might be going up but that is obscuring something quite important – that the increase in aid is not reaching the poorest people. Rather, it is remaining in donor countries, meaning the impact on poverty and sustainability on a global level is not what it might appear from the figures,” said Dudd.

“If we are spending aid in our own country, it is not ‘genuine’ aid in the sense of the developmental impact. Helping refugees is absolutely the right thing to do but the direct benefit to developing countries is less tangible.

“We should question the inclusion of donor refugee costs as aid – money which never reaches a poor country is at best dubious in terms of developmental impact and is certainly an attempt to artificially inflate a country’s aid contribution.”

The least developed countries and those with the most complex development needs are among those affected by a fall in bilateral aid. The figures show that Germany has surpassed the UK in absolute terms, becoming the second biggest donor behind the US. However, the country’s aid increase included a doubling of what it spends on hosting refugees – accounting for 25% of its overall budget. The proportion of the global aid budget now spent on supporting refugees stands at 10.8%.

In Brussels, the EU’s Green alliance attacked member countries for trading off funding for refugees and development money.

Heidi Hautala, a Finnish MEP from the Green League, said:Before we congratulate Germany on joining the club of those few EU member states that have reached their commitment of 0.7 % of GNI to development cooperation, it is worth noticing that over 20% of its official development aid is spent on receiving refugees. At the same time, aid directed to the poorest countries is in decline.

“Inflating aid figures with in-donor refugee costs does not help the least developed countries to tackle poverty and inequality. The EU and its member states must keep their promises to both tackle poverty and assist refugees, and should not be trading one off against the other.”

Adrian Lovett, spokesman for the ONE Campaign, also warned that the focus had shifted away from the poorest countries. He said: “International aid has never been higher, but the need for it has never been greater. With four devastating famines looming and 130 million girls denied an education, we need life-changing aid. But the refugee crisis means too much aid is being spent in Europe, and does little to help end extreme poverty. Now is the time for donor countries to focus on reaching the world’s most vulnerable rather than inflating their aid figures.”

Overall, overseas development aid rose in 22 countries in 2016 . While 10.7% of the world’s population still live in extreme poverty, EU member states again failed collectively to reach targets agreed in the 1970s by rich countries.

Six countries met the long-standing commitment to provide 0.7% of gross national income in aid including the UK, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden – and, for the first time, Germany. Meanwhile, the Netherlands dropped off the list for the first time since 1974.

Commenting on the UK figures, the ActionAid chief executive, Girish Menon, said: “Right now UK aid is helping to feed millions of hungry people in east Africa whose lives have been devastated by drought and hunger.

“As the UK leaves the EU and redefines its place in the world, it is vital we continue to be an outward-looking nation committed to helping the world’s poorest people. UK aid can be the foundation for a truly global Britain.”

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