As good conversation should, the talk meandered from the serious to the playful. One of the serious topics was overseas aid. A generation ago, Peter Bauer, as fine a scholar as ever, addressing himself to that subject, produced a lapidary dictum: ‘Much overseas aid is a subsidy from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.’
Recent DFID ministers such as Alan Duncan and Andrew Mitchell insist that there have been improvements. Others are sceptical. Announcing that we will spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid can create a moral hazard. There is pressure to spend the money: less pressure to ensure that it is wisely spent.
A few years ago, someone in London decided that Kenyan schoolchildren did not have enough textbooks and that something ought to be done. Everyone agreed. It would require a Scrooge dosage of anti–sentimental fortitude to resist such a plea. So £80 million was allocated and all those involved felt good about themselves. No doubt the Kenyan ministers and officials who took the money also felt good, as did the bankers who accepted the deposits. There is no evidence that a single Kenyan child ever received a single textbook. Much of the aid money — paid for by British taxpayers — ended up in Switzerland. Switzerland does not need foreign aid.
Apropos of feeling good, my friend David Lloyd, a visitor from Australia who has devoted his life to medical research, was able to report on a recent research mission. That Hamleys for grown-ups, Messrs Berry Bros & Rudd, has reorganised its shopping facilities. I expressed scepticism. When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. Why try to improve on perfection?
David disagreed. He gave a lyrical description of a row of armagnacs from the beginning of the 20th century: a perfect fusion of aesthetics and oenophilia — a life-enhancing declaration of war on financial prudence.