Setting aside the highly contentious issue of whether taxpayers should be forced to contribute to overseas charity in the first place, do we get value for money?
As we blogged previously, the aid industry has long been a murky corner of government spending, where the action takes place well away from critical eyes here at home, and where it is often impossible to measure success. From the notorious groundnuts scheme onwards, past government initiatives in third world countries have wasted huge amounts of taxpayers' money without much benefiting recipient countries.
Are things any better today?
The vast bulk of current UK aid is channelled through the Department for International Development (DfID), an organisation that has become synonymous with inefficiency and wishful thinking. For example, as regular BOM readers will recall, they currently spend an extraordinary £0.5bn pa (12% of their budget) on our old friends the consultants. Overall, according to ActionAid, around one third goes on "phantom aid", which does not benefit the world's poor at all.
Shocking enough. But another insight into DfID comes from people who work in the international contracting industry. They tell of what happened when Clare Short decided to switch from tied aid (ie aid tied to the third world recipient buying from a UK supplier) to untied aid.
The idea was that with untied aid, instead of being forced to buy rotten old British products and services, recipient governments would be able to shop around for the best and most suitable deal available from any supplier, anywhere in the world. And we generous British taxpayers would simply write the cheque. That would have to be better, right?
What's happened in the real world is that recipient governments- or more precisely, recipient politicians and officials- now have an even freer hand to extract bribes from the world's suppliers. We British taxpayers supply the money unencumbered, free on board, so they can simply phone around to the South Koreans and the Chinese touting for the biggest bribe. Whoever pays it gets the biz.
Brilliant. Short's half-baked plan has actually produced an explosion in bribery and corruption. And sadly, in places like Bangladesh and Nigeria, it hardly needed encouragement.
Now, yes, British contractors obviously have an axe. And you'd have to guess these companies can only operate in some markets on the basis of escalating douceurs (cf the allegations in the BAE case).
But you can be sure they haven't made the whole thing up.
PS The picture shows ex-President Mobutu of Zaire, who became a byword for corruption. It was estimated he built up a fortune of $5bn lodged in various Swiss banks.