U.K. official in Ghana: Foreign aid largely positive influence on continent

Jon Benjamin
Jon Benjamin | Contributed photo
As the continent of Africa continues to grow, becoming a player in the global marketplace and making gains in the areas of technology and agriculture, officials are taking a look at how much of a role foreign aid has had in making it all possible.

"Whether foreign aid works has been polarized between the 'Oh, yes it does' camp and those who respond, 'Oh, no it doesn’t.'" Jon Benjamin, British high commissioner to Ghana designate, said recently in a TEDx Accra speech in Ghana. "That’s too simplistic a juxtaposition."

Benjamin said that since Africa began receiving foreign aid nearly seven decades ago, the continent's nations and citizens are sometimes not well-informed about the issue.

"In the United Kingdom, we don’t, however, have such existentialist doubts," Benjamin said. "The U.K. alone, amongst the world’s largest economies, has reached the U.N. target of giving 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) in overseas development assistance (ODA)," Benjamin said. "That’s around ($18 billion) this year of U.K. aid worldwide, which means about half the size of Ghana’s whole economy."

Benjamin said the U.K. gives to Ghana because the nation feels it needs to be "a good global citizen," and it also recognizes the history of British colonial rule on the continent.

"That responsibility works in the other direction too, though," Benjamin said. "We have a responsibility to spend that money well and account for it properly – to the British taxpayer who funds that aid."

Over the years, Benjamin said, foreign-aid funds have been used for a variety of purposes. Today, much of that funding goes toward Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals set by the African government.

Benjamin also said great care is taken to be sure aid is given in proper amounts because too much or too little could cause problems.

"Aid is likely to have diminishing returns as it grows relative to the size of the economy, and those returns can even turn negative," Benjamin said.

Benjamin said a stigma sometimes becomes attached when the phrase "foreign aid" is used, but that countries are much more willing to accept the help when it is referred to as "economic assistance" or "development cooperation." Benjamin also said countries that are offered aid are under no obligation to accept it -- and that some don't.

Benjamin said he recently heard a speech by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British mobile communications entrepreneur-billionaire and philanthropist, who said money transfers from Africa connected to corruption are now exceeding the continent's receipts from aid.

"Think about it," Benjamin said. "However much we have been giving in development assistance to Africa, even more has been stolen from Africa. That’s to say stolen from African citizens by African leaders and elites."

Still, growth in Ghana and much of Africa is attributable to foreign aid.

"Between 1991 and 2012, the poverty rate in Ghana fell by more than half," Benjamin said. "Did aid play a role in that? I’m convinced it did."

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United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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