The main focus of the recent Make Poverty History campaign was a call for increased government aid to under-developed nations, but there may be a better way to help the poor. When government aid is provided to developing countries, the connection between the ultimate donors taxpayers - and those receiving help is tenuous in the extreme. If I vote for an increase in taxes, to fund development aid, the extra money will be gathered by the Inland Revenue and passed to a UK Government department. The UK government may then pay the money to a multi-national agency which, in turn, will feed it through the developing country government to be spent, after a further series of bureaucratic steps, on projects designed to help the poor. It is not surprising that a recent aid project to fund Ugandan schools saw only 13% of the money reach the schools themselves. It is also not surprising that there are genuine concerns about the institutional effects of aid. If over-powerful, corrupt governments are a major cause of poverty, then aid can entrench and give more power to the very institutions that create poverty.
Indeed, the lines of accountability in the case of such aid-financed projects are very tenuous indeed or perhaps non-existent, or even perverse. When politicians make the case to voters for increased aid, they generally do so on the grounds that the recipients of aid are very poor. It is almost unknown for politicians to justify more aid on the grounds of the success of previous projects that have been financed by aid. Taxpayers and voters are unable to hold governments to account for the success, or otherwise, of aid projects. Charities behave very differently. When appealing for our money and time, which is voluntarily given, they have to demonstrate how successful they have been with past donations. Charities measure their success in terms of how much they deliver whereas governments measure their success in terms of how much they spend.
It was, perhaps, surprising that, in the Make Poverty History campaign, there was barely a whisper about the benefits that might flow from philanthropy and Christian charity: particularly given the involvement of churches in the campaign.
Philanthropy can be far more effective in helping the poor. It involves direct help given by people to the intended beneficiaries. It works from the bottom up. It by-passes the rich and politically powerful who cause so many problems for poor people in poor countries. A charity may, of course, stand between the donor and recipient as an intermediary, but philanthropy involves the provision of direct help and we can be pretty sure that the assistance given will efficiently reach the intended beneficiary.