What we talk about when we talk about aid: A plea for accuracy

The following post is by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. One thing that seems to get lost in debates over aid is the idea that “aid” is not a monolith. People talking about aid may mean church-to-church shipments of used clothes, World Bank loans to build dams, money transfers from donor governments, or expatriate-run projects that aim to provide services or improve the ability of the host government to govern. This is sloppy, careless language. It gets in the way of actually talking about aid.

We’re never going to have a useful conversation about aid effectiveness if we’re not even talking about the same things. When you ask if aid “works” – are you asking if financial transfers from donor governments to poorer governments actually reduce poverty? Are you asking if specific international development projects can achieve defined goals like reducing child mortality? Are you asking if aid gets used for its intended purpose instead of being diverted into graft?

If we’re going to talk about work as important – and expensive – as international aid, the least we can do is use accurate language. So, here’s my suggestion. Let’s stop using the word “aid”. Just drop it from our vocabularies because it is making our discourse worse. If you’re talking about development projects, then say so. Use those exact words: international development project. If you’re talking about budget support to poor governments, say so. Church gifts? That would be charity.

Sure, it sounds crazy. But it sure wouldn’t make things worse, and it might make our discussions a little clearer. We have plenty of ways to talk about this that don't require a vague and unhelpful collective noun. Let’s use them.