Does aid have a continued role to play in the contemporary international system? Or, has the current system become so intertwined with the interests of governing elites and corporate players to maintain relevance? Should organisations taking a long-term approach to development step aside, and shift the focus solely onto humanitarian crises?

Gathering at London’s City Hall on Thursday 1 October, we invited a panel of experts to tackle these questions, and many more, in this year’s Big Debate.

Featuring experts from academia, the third sector and business, including: John Hilary, Executive Director of War on Want; Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society; Stephen Browne, Founder and Co-director of Future United Nations Development System; Dr Titi Banjoko, Managing Director of Africa Recruit; Stephen Browne, Founder and Co-director of Future United Nations Development System; and, BBC correspondent Kate Adie, the panel pulled no punches in a lively and at times controversial discussion in front of a packed crowd.

Though the panellists agreed that humanitarian aid can prove vital, all but one thought that the impact of aid is generally being distorted and diluted by working alongside governments and multinationals. John Hilary claimed that ‘‘poverty is political’’ and is a direct consequence of decisions made by the political and governmental elite. He added: ‘‘If aid is being used as a political weapon, we don’t want any more of it.’’

Richard Dowden concurred, ‘‘In Africa it’s politics stupid, not economics’’ that’s to blame. When asked how, if given control of the UK’s aid budget, he would focus his investment Dowden’s answer was quick and to the point: “education”.

   Listen to the enitre debate here

Perhaps the boldest position of the evening was proffered by Dr Banjoko, who argued simply: ‘‘Aid in most countries needs to go.’’ For Dr Banjoko, aid has served to prop up questionable governments across Africa, leaving them unaccountable to their populations whilst filtering away funds to foreign bank accounts. Speaking passionately on her native Nigeria, she wondered ‘‘why does Nigeria get aid? The amount of money they have – and where is it?’’ Going on to describe the millions of pounds that leave the country every year, she added: ‘‘Africa is rich in resources…we are not poor but resources are poorly managed.’’

However, not all the panellists were so forceful in their rejection of the current aid paradigm. Kate Adie argued for a greater focus on grassroots intervention. She said: ‘‘[Charities] should target communities directly. Ask them what they need and deliver…Give people skills, training, seeds and money to support businesses…teach them the skills so that they can use them and pass them on.’’

The debate ended with a closing response from Send a Cow’s Director of Research and Impact, Richie Alford, who said that ‘‘Send a Cow is much bigger than its name suggests’’ and went on to describe the charity’s direct approach, which doesn’t go through governments, but seeks to implement programmes in areas of extreme hardship. For Send a Cow, working with groups directly we see them develop to their own platform through which to advocate for change.