The annual report for Irish Aid - the government's overseas aid programme - tells us that the Department of Foreign Affairs spent a total of €814 million, or over 0.5% of GNP, last year. This went on projects in over 90 countries, with the focus remaining on eight programme countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The target is to increase the share of GNP to 0.7% by 2012 - amounting to well over €1 billion a year by then.
The question for the Irish tax payer is: what do we get for our money? The aims of Irish Aid are undoubtedly laudable, but is it effective in the context of a) the problems facing Africa and b) the amounts being spent on solving the same problems by other organisations? Our contribution is miniscule relative to the billions spent every year by aid organisations. The fact that we then spread the money over multiple projects across multiple countries surely reduces any impact even further? Paul Collier's book 'The Bottom Billion' illustrates just how difficult it is for aid alone to make any kind of sustainable impact on Africa's problems.
Would it not, therefore, be more effective to focus our money on just one thing that could really benefit Africa? You may already have heard about the campaign to introduce cheap laptops for Africa - well what about cheap mobile phones? 'A mobile phone for every African' is something we could readily achieve with our Irish Aid contributions. A deal with Nokia or Motorola would no doubt help drive the price down to manageable levels.
Mobile phones have transformed social and commercial behaviour already in Africa - why not drive it even further and help solve all the other problems pre-occupying aid workers?