Foreign aid: a humanitarian development initiative or a geopolitical tool?

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Published: Louise Chatterton, and artwork by Ryan Ward

Foreign aid is undoubtedly a divisive topic in international development. If handled effectively, foreign aid has the capability to precipitate transformative effects in developing countries, through the alleviation of poverty and the acceleration of GDP growth in the poorest countries in the world. However, it is vital that the political motivations of such initiatives are scrutinised: does foreign aid primarily act as a mechanism to advance foreign policy objectives under the pretence of humanitarian assistance? Or is foreign aid actually reaching the people and communities it claims to help?

As of 2016, UK law dictates that the government must contribute 0.7% of its GDP to overseas aid; this is compliant with the UN target for donor countries.  Approximately one third of UK foreign aid is “multilateral” and is therefore spent via organisations such as the UN or the World Bank. One of the primary goals of such multilateral organisations is to reduce poverty in developing nations, therefore this form of aid is considered to be less politically motivated. The remainder of UK foreign aid is “bilateral”, meaning that resources flow directly from the UK government to the governments of recipient countries; it is this form aid that is more overtly problematic. 

Donor countries have the agency to use bilateral aid as a tool to pursue geopolitical objectives, which often operate at the expense of the very communities which could actually be supported by such aid. A prime example of this is the controversial aid deal between the UK and Saudi Arabia in 2018. In Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Downing Street, a £100m aid agreement was signed alongside trade deals worth £65bn. In this flagrant pursuit of geopolitical objectives, the UK aligned itself with a country that is responsible for the destruction of Yemeni homes, schools and hospitals. It is vital to question this perverse role of aid in a conflict which is causing severe hardship for millions of people: how can a government claim they are providing philanthropic aid whilst they are simultaneously responsible for the provision of weapons that fuel the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? 

The colonial implications of foreign aid add further complexity to this debate. It is clear that selfish interests often drive donors to use foreign aid to generate influence overseas, where aid can be withdrawn or granted at the whim of colonial powerhouses. For example, in 2014 the British government came under criticism for using aid in the interests of big business, through allocating £600m of aid to an agricultural scheme that was described as “a new form of colonialism”. The scheme was proposed to accelerate responsible investment in African agriculture and to lift millions out of poverty, however, the prioritisation of multinational firms over smallholder African farmers was said to have exacerbated poverty further. Many of the products and profits of this scheme were exported to developed countries, meaning that the smaller-scale farmers who provide food for the majority of the African population were actually damaged by a scheme that claimed to be serving them. 

Aid initiatives such as this contribute to the cultivation of paternalistic relationships between recipient and donor nations. The implementation of colonial projects under the guise of foreign aid blatantly disregards those who are most in need, highlighting a significant problem that stems from, in many cases, the true motivations behind international aid.

Even in the case of genuine altruistic motivation, it is imperative to address whether foreign aid actually reaches the people and communities it claims to help. Bilateral aid has the capability to foster corruption, with the looming threat of aid ending up in the back-pockets of corrupt politicians and their cronies. A report published in early 2018 tracked billions of pounds of foreign aid to have ended up in tax havens, shedding light on the significant difficulties that occur in the handling of foreign aid. Fundamentally, the system is inadequate if it is not operating to help the people it claims to. 

If we accept that humanitarian development is truly the objective of aid, then it is clear that we must reconfigure the way in which foreign aid is distributed. There is evidence to suggest that the use of foreign aid as a ‘bottom-up’ tool can lead to positive developmental outcomes, where agency and power is placed within the heart of recipient local communities. This could be seen in the response to the Nepalese earthquake in 2015, where local NGOs such as Lumanti enacted the successful implementation of local earthquake relief activities. The allocation of aid to such organisations was an effective development strategy, as they could respond quickly and efficiently, based upon the community’s own understanding of its needs in the wake of this natural disaster. Local agencies are able to shape response programmes in a contextually appropriate and culturally sensitive manner, indicating that such organisations can be more effective in responding to local crises, as far as their capacities allow.

It is undeniable that when motivated and used appropriately, foreign aid is a resource that has the potential to improve the lives of millions across the globe; therefore, we must strive to re-evaluate the way in which foreign aid is allocated, through placing more agency in the hands of local communities.  

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