Why the Today Programme leads to premature ageing

March 12, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

I feel terrible today, all thanks to the Today programme. For non-UK readers, it’s the flagship drivetime radio news show – the one that politicians and chattering classes listen to as they scan the newspapers and munch on their cornflakes. I was on this morning, talking about aid and corruption.

What you heard on the radio (should you have been listening) was a relatively coherent couple of minutes of discussion. In contrast, what I experienced was about three hours sleep, followed by hours of tossing and turning as about 20 dummy run interviews ran through my head (most of which went brilliantly, of course).

For an NGO wonk, it’s the nearest thing to ‘fight or flight’– in particular that moment when you are sat in a little room on your own (the interviewers are miles away in another studio), plonked in front of a vintage BBC microphone. Hypnotically appealing self-destruct fantasies run through your head as the clock ticks down to your first question- Faint? Run away? Sing an obscene ditty? At stake, kudos if it goes well, barely concealed delight/ crocodile tears from all your so-called mates if you crash and burn, as I

scarier than they look

scarier than they look

did a couple of years ago (the Today programme has a reputation for chewing up its guests and spitting out the bones – that’s why everyone listens to it).

In the end the sleepless night was unjustified. The interviewer (James Naughtie) was benign (maybe he’d devoured someone else earlier on – he was the one who worked me over last time), and my co-interviewee Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies, was excellent. All that stress for nothing.

But it goes so fast! You have time to make about two points, and then it’s thankyou and goodbye and the BBC car back to your dayjob. So in case you’re interested, here’s my crib sheet with all the points I had in front of me, and failed to make………

Aid Success Stories

– 33m children into school in last decade
– 4m fewer kids dying every year, despite population growth
– In Nepal, aid has reduced infant mortality by a third in just 5 years
– bed nets and immunisation
– Access to HIV drugs up tenfold in last 5 years
– Country success stories: South Korea and Botswana

But need is rising – climate change


Risks of diversion rise in ‘fog of war’ or natural disaster. There, you have to accept a certain degree of loss.

Command and Control not an option – chaotic places are the ones that most need aid.

How to minimise risk? Get all parties to agree, make local leaders responsible for distribution

When to pull out? Look at net benefit to beneficiaries, if aid starts to actually harm them, eg be spent on guns, then you may have to leave.

Oxfam commissions an independent assessment on any programme over £1m, and publishes an accountability report.

Long Term Development

Aid to fight corruption: DFID has pledged 5% of all funding to governments to support public monitoring of how it is spent, This could support
– Civil society watchdogs (Oxfam supports them in Georgia, Armenia)
– Media scrutiny
– Parliamentary oversight

Eg Ugandan schools: 80% of per capitation grants (i.e. non wage for books etc) was being diverted to local government spending, until government insisted on publishing budgets right down to school level. It then fell to 20%.
Some sectors are worse affected than others: military and construction contracts, oil and gas are all favoured honeypots. Schools and hospitals less likely to be hit.

Aid can also be used to build tax revenue and reduce aid dependence: eg Rwanda quadrupled tax income from 1998-2006:

And remember, the long term aim is to help poor people, not least by building effective and accountable states – mustn’t lose sight of that’

If only I’d an hour instead of 3 minutes…….

March 12, 2010
Duncan Green