International aid groups have criticized the EU and many of its member states for falling behind their promises to step up foreign aid to 0.5 per cent of GDP by 2010 and 0.7 per cent by 2015.

On the one hand, these groups are right to expose the accounting tricks governments use in order to promote themselves as saviors of Africa. On the other hand, the aid groups should consider very carefully whether their focus on state aid is really the key towards future development in poor countries.

The problem that they indicate is that the EU and its members classify some expenses as aid although these are only indirectly related to development. This includes debt restructuring and payments to cover housing of refugee claimants in Europe.

The aid groups say that in 2007, EU nations spent around €8 billion in such non-aid items. They conclude that “on current trends, the EU will have given €75 billion less between 2005 and 2010 than was promised.”

This kind of creative accounting should not be very surprising since politicians like to claim that they are helping the poorest countries in the world but also know that it is more difficult to tell taxpayers that they have to foot the bill. In such circumstances the most convenient thing to do is to artificially inflate the aid budget with non-aid expenses.

The question remains: Is state-to-state aid the most effective way to promote development? Prof. Philip Booth explained at a recent conference organized by the Acton Institute in Rome that government aid has failed on countless occasions and has even entrenched underdevelopment on some occasions.

Booth made clear that “at the empirical level, there appears to be a negative relationship between aid and growth. This does not imply cause and effect of course, but it should make us pause for thought. After the late 1970s, aid to Africa grew rapidly yet GDP growth collapsed and was close to zero or negative for over a decade from 1984. GDP growth in Africa did not start to pick up again until aid fell in the early-to-mid 1990s. In East Asia, South Asia and the Pacific, one also finds that, as aid reduced, national income increased rapidly.”

It is important to note that Booth criticized government-to-government aid and not charity in general. Whereas transfers between governments have often resulted in rent-seeking and the strengthening of dubious regimes, private initiatives do not suffer from the same problems: “None of the points I have made relate to the exercise of charity. It is important to point out that we should not wait for a just ordering of the world or good governance in recipient countries before supporting charitable relief.”

Aid groups such as Oxfam and Christian Aid would do well to turn their focus away from pressuring governments to spend more on aid and instead strengthen their efforts to encourage private initiatives.