What on Earth has World Tourism Day got to do with foreign aid?

By Policy Analyst, Jeremy Hutton.


When you first think of foreign aid, you probably think of one of two things. The first is saving lives through things like mosquito nets, building wells and providing disaster relief. The alternative thought might be one of corruptionwaste, and crooked NGOs. But whether you are pro-aid or aid-phobic, towards the UN World Tourism Office probably isn’t where you thought foreign aid cash was going.

Thanks to the rigged foreign aid rules of the OEDC, a small number of giant NGOs and multilateral organisations and agencies can receive what are effectively blank cheques from governments around the world. No matter how these cash injections are spent, the donor can report them as foreign aid. That means the money can be spent on back office administrative functions, salaries, or even plush conferences in all manner of far flung places. Notably, national governments face much stricter rules.

One such agency in receipt of these blank cheques is the UN World Tourism Office (UNWTO). Operating on a budget of around €20 million per year, nearly €14 million of this comes from UN member nations. For every £1 sent to the UNWTO, 89 pence can be reported as foreign aid by the donor.

How does the UNWTO spend these contributions? Certainly not by educating children in impoverished states and eliminating disease. Here are some examples of what the UNWTO did in 2017:

  • Opened a new office in Geneva, one of the world’s most expensive cities.
  • Held an annual mountain resorts conference in Georgia.
  • Hosted a wine tourism conference in Argentina.
  • Gathered for a summit on ‘overtourism’ in London.

Or how about in 2016? When the UNWTO held conferences and summits in Madrid, Andorra, Lima, Havana, Vilnius and many more locations. 

Perhaps there is some benefit to UNWTO members from these events, tourism can be a great boost to a developing country’s economy, but as a tool of foreign aid this is surely a misleading betrayal of taxpayers in countries all around the world whose government contributes to the UNWTO.

Unfortunately, because the financial section of the UNWTO’s annual report consists of nothing more than a single pie chart, it is very difficult to see who contributes what to it. This is just one possible example of many, wherein the multilateral aid establishment dictate the rules that mean unaccountable murky organisations like this can become a convenient outlet for a country’s foreign aid budget.

Many people may be very sceptical of foreign aid spending, and when organisations such as this waste money on events about wine tourism it is all too easy to understand why. To remedy this and prevent aid spending being used in such a way there are two courses of action to take: firstly, OECD rules must be tightened so that governments cannot just write black cheques to unaccountable aid agencies. All foreign aid spending should be subject to the stringent standards that are expected of national governments. Just because it’s the United Nations doesn’t make it automatically flawless.

Secondly, how aid spending is disbursed should be re-geared, to reduce aid dependency on multilaterals and open up the playing field to smaller development charities so as to introduce much needed competition into the development sector.

Little changes like these can help restore faith in international development, see more money going in the right direction, and ultimately allow the UK to take back control of its foreign aid agenda.

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