The Goodwill Game

Historically, foreign aid has been touted by policymakers as an altruistic endeavour, but its links to colonialism and military interventionism suggest it is anything but.

Words: James Bramble
Illustration: Franz Lang

A decade later, Hans Morgenthau, the intellectual giant of American realpolitik, used this story to illustrate his contention that overseas aid was almost always motivated by self-interest, and as such needed clearly defined goals. “As military policy is too important a matter to be left ultimately to the generals,” he wrote, “so is foreign aid too important a matter to be left in the end to economists.”

“In the US, the aligning of aid with self-interest and security is unapologetic. In 1989, the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union, aid plummeted.”

The ebb and flow of US aid spending over the last 75 years demonstrates just such an entanglement of aid with foreign policy interests. Beginning with the Marshall programme to reconstruct Europe and prevent communism from flowering in the ruins of the second world war, US aid flows steadily increased to their highest levels in 40 years as the cold war grew colder and became a key front in an economic war between the US and the Soviet Union to maintain their spheres of influence.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan, fiercely defending the use of aid, declared, “You know the excuses: We can’t afford foreign aid anymore, or we’re wasting money pouring it into these poor countries, or we can’t buy friends — other countries just take the money and dislike us for giving it. Well, all these excuses are just that, excuses — and they’re dead wrong.”

In the US, the aligning of aid with self-interest and security is unapologetic. In 1989, the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union, aid plummeted and remained at historically low levels throughout the 1990s, until the September 11 attacks saw it peak at 1.4% of the budget in 2007 (up from 0.8% in 1997), a significant proportion of which went to Afghanistan.

American Aid also includes a significant proportion of military spending: purchasing equipment, training personnel and peacekeeping. This means that the three main recipients of US aid are Iraq ($5.3bn), Afghanistan ($5.1bn) and Israel ($3.1bn). $3.7bn of the aid in Afghanistan is military aid, as is the entirety of Israel’s aid.

“Sweden, Denmark and Norway overwhelmingly presented aid in humanitarian terms and as a moral obligation.”

In the UK and Europe, motivations of self-interest have been less naked. European overseas aid emerged originally out of the ashes of the second world war and the demise of the continent’s colonial empires. The UN Charter and the Marshall Plan established precedent for international action and the UK, Belgium, France and the Netherlands reframed their imperial spending in terms of colonial development and welfare.

By the 1960s, the First UN Development Decade, nations with little modern history of empire building, such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway, had begun to establish dedicated aid programmes. This new generation of donors overwhelmingly presented aid in humanitarian terms and as a moral obligation. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are in the world’s top five contributors per capita, Sweden giving 1.4% of GDP — twice the 0.7% commitment made by other developed nations.

While this may at first glance appear entirely benign, self-interest can also be seen within this Nordic generosity. In Ideas, Interests and Foreign Aid, Maurits van der Veen studied the legislative debates in such European middle-income countries to identify how the objectives of European aid were presented. He argued that while European aid is to a significant extent driven by humanitarian concerns, regional competition is also a key motivator.

These Nordic aid programmes, van der Veen writes, are driven largely by reputational gains. This has kept relative aid levels high, motivated in part by maintaining prestige among international peers. Such prestige donors, he writes, will tend to give the most, whereas countries such as Switzerland and the US — motivated by narrowly defined strategic interests — give the least.

In recent years, the UK has unapologetically moved beyond the humanitarian arguments that marked its aid policy in the late 20th century towards a more avowed focus on self-interest, including security but also “soft power”. The current UK aid strategy talks of “tackling global challenges in the national interest”, and that aid enables the UK to “walk taller in the world”.

This strategy was accompanied by the creation of the £1.26bn Conflict, Security, and Stabilisation Fund (CSSF), managed, significantly, not only by the Department for International Development (DFID) but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Cabinet Office and others. Whereas DFID’s funding is transparent, the allocation of CSSF funds is partially opaque, to enable covert funding in the pursuit of foreign policy interests.

Increasingly, this has meant the allocation of aid to address the impact of conflict. The UK Aid strategy was published in 2015, and committed 50% of UK Aid to fragile states — with a particular emphasis on Syria. The largest aid recipients in recent years have been Pakistan and Afghanistan. The parallel with military intervention and security interests is obvious.

In June 2020, Boris Johnson announced that the departments would be merged. Johnson had long trailed such a move, but a soft coup within DFID which had given more power to FCO mandarins and a new secretary of state for international development — albeit one highly sceptical about aid — had suggested that he might settle for just trimming DFID’s sails.

As foreign secretary, Johnson had announced that “the old jam jars have been smashed” and aligned aid firmly with foreign policy. The OECD, under pressure from the UK government and others, included “countering violent extremism” in the definition of Official Development Assistance, so long as it contributed to development, and also enabled support for the military in fragile countries on issues that promote development, “such as human rights and the prevention of sexual violence”.

This enabled aid to be spent on activities to address “narratives” of extremism which, in 2015, was highly effective in recruiting support for ISIS and others. Given that ISIS’s values were those of a medieval dictatorship, countering its propaganda could essentially include promoting the values of the European Enlightenment: freedom of expression, democracy and inter-cultural dialogue.

While these dramatic shifts in the alignment of aid are relatively recent, they have their origins in a long, slow, and gradual redefinition of the paradigm of legitimate non-military intervention over some 75 years. Its roots lie in postwar attempts to achieve international consensus on nothing less than the universal needs of humanity and what exactly “development” is.

The 1947 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights aimed to mobilise the unique postwar consciousness to create a lasting consensus on the higher aspirations of humanity. Despite the Soviet Bloc’s resistance, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights built on this foundation to include fundamental economic and social rights.

The language of these declarations has informed the current European Convention on Human Rights — which unlike the UN charters is legally enforceable in the EU — the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals, the most influential frameworks for aid. They have further enabled NGOs such as Amnesty International to include economic and social rights within the scope of human rights work.

A vast array of activities are hence now covered within the term Official Development Assistance, which might previously have been excluded under the narrow definition of the “economic development and welfare of developing countries”. This has fuelled increased cynicism among the public, particularly in the UK, about the uses of aid, and the commitment to 0.7% of GDP at a time of austerity that has crippled domestic spending. Specific examples, such as millions of pounds of funding (now halted) for Yegna, a girl band dubbed “Ethiopia’s Spice Girls”, have been highlighted by critics as frivolous.

But the broadening of aid parameters also presents profound questions about the exportation of “values” under the aegis of overseas aid. The CSSF undoubtedly funds projects in closed societies, supporting fragile civil societies through media outlets, small NGOs, and other activists who might otherwise be crushed for dissent against the state.

These activities are incredibly important, but the line between discrete funding for anti-government activists and covert ops is a fine one. The NGO sector is supposed to be just that, non-governmental, and there are existential questions about such organisations becoming a tool of governments in addition to practical considerations about endangering NGO staff.

“While dramatic shifts in the alignment of aid are relatively recent, they have their origins in a long, slow and gradual redefinition of the paradigm of legitimate non-military intervention.”

The UK, as with other post-imperial nations, is vulnerable to criticism of its aid spending on the basis of its colonial past. The human rights paradigm, with its claims to universality, provides some insulation against this. But if we accept that aid is motivated largely by self-interest then defining the goals of such values-based aid presents awkward questions. Countering the violent extremism of ISIS or Boko Haram can be justified on the basis of preventing terrorism at home, insurgency abroad and human misery on a vast scale. But promoting democracy, freedom of expression and other values in sovereign states is more problematic both as an expression of overt prestige aid and covert security funding.

It requires certainty that the values promoted are universal, balanced, non-propagandist — difficult things for a country still wrestling with the legacy of the empire. If introducing democracy in Afghanistan is a force for good, can the same be said of the introduction of democracy, literacy and medicine to the empire?

Morgenthau was not to know that, in 1979, the Soviet Union would move from paving the streets of Kabul to invading them. In doing so, the true motivations, and limitations, of aid as a tool of its foreign policy were laid bare. Ultimately, like the American dam, it was a failure, and the catastrophic consequences of that failure are felt to this day. Aid as foreign policy is a dangerous game.

This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s eighth issue: Conflict.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by Human After All, to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world.

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