The Roles of Aid in Politics Putting China in Perspective

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Hook, Steven W. (1996), “Chapter 14: Foreign Aid and the Illogic of Collective Action,” in Hooks, Steven W. (ed.), Foreign Aid Toward the Millennium, Boulder, pp. 227-237, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

According to a well-known African aphorism, “When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” These words were often used to describe the Cold War’s pernicious effects on LDCs in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, many of which served as surrogate battlegrounds during the nearly half century of superpower competition.

In the late 1990s, a corollary has gained widespread currency: “When elephants make love, the grass suffers equally.”

Such is the ironic fate of many impoverished states that escaped from the shadow of the United States and Soviet Union only to find themselves as financially distressed as ever in the mid-1990s. Ambitious plans to implement the UN’s program for sustainable development have been scaled back in the face of cutbacks in many aid budgets. The bulk of remaining aid flows has been concentrated among strategic allies of the United States, trading partners of Japan, former colonies of France and Great Britain, heavily indebted middle-income countries, and transition states in the former Soviet bloc. For the inhabitants of the world’s poorest areas, still suffering from acute malnutrition, overcrowding, and political repression, hegemonic meddling by the major powers has been replaced in many instances by indifference and neglect.

The crest in worldwide aid flows took many by surprise, as the euphoria surrounding the Cold War’s demise gave way to a new era of fiscal austerity and economic competition in the industrialized world. Without influential domestic constituencies to promote aid on a humanitarian basis, and in the absence of the geopolitical rationales that had driven U.S. and Soviet aid flows for decades, many long-standing aid programs were reduced or eliminated outright. Those that survived were often those that most benefited the donor countries – either directly, through the tying of aid funds to domestic purchases, or indirectly, through the securing of export markets, sources of raw materials, or destinations for overseas investments. As they became more selective in their aid relationships, donors imposed increasingly stringent conditions upon recipients regarding their use of the aid funds.

The contributions to this volume have examined the many pieces of the foreign-aid puzzle and have shed new light on the trends in aid flows between the Cold War and the new millennium. They have described these trends in the context of the volatile and rapidly changing international climate of the 1990s, which has witnessed tenuous political and economic transitions in Eastern Europe, the resurgence of many regional conflicts, tightening economic integration, and a wave of democratization that has swept across much of the developing world. Military assistance has given way to development aid in the post-Cold War era, although arms transfers on market terms have accelerated in many conflict-prone regions. Thus, the emphasis of this anthology has been on the shifting logic of development-aid programs and their application to the broader policy goals of both rich and poor states.

Along the way, these contributors have illuminated the many ways in which developmental problems and solutions are unique to each areas [sic] of study. This was the intended purpose of their collective effort – to move beyond a generalized treatment of international development and to examine its complexities in a wide variety of discrete functional and regional contexts.

Yet readers of this volume may have noticed commonalities across the chapters, both in terms of the problems facing donors and recipients and in the solutions embraced to resolve them. Thus, without minimizing the distinctive aspects of the individual contributions, we may profitably explore some consistent themes and lessons.

Two-Level Games in Donor States

Among the recurring themes found in Part 2 of this volume is the coexistence of both domestic and systemic pressures that pulled policymakers and aid administrators in often contradictory directions during the post-Cold War period. To Putnam (1988), such “two-level games” often constrain the ability of policymakers to pursue optimal solutions based upon objective evaluations of existing problems and goals.

In the case of foreign aid, our contributors observed a pattern by which both donor and recipient governments, having enunciated clear policy goals, were constrained by multiple and frequently competing domestic actors. These included heads of state, legislative bodies, aid bureaucracies, foreign ministries, nongovernmental organizations, and elites from the business sector, who exerted greater leverage in an era of geoeconomics. The foreign-aid regime became more diffused, involving the OECD, IMF, World Bank, United Nations, European Union, and a network of regional development banks, each of which brought discrete institutional biases to the table. As a result, the proclaimed ends and the executed means of foreign aid were increasingly disconnected, resulting in compromises that undercut the efficacy of aid strategies.

Like other aspects of U.S. foreign relations, U.S. policy toward the Third World has lacked a common orienting principle in the post-Cold War era, shifting spasmodically across regions and issue areas in an ad hoc manner (see Spanier and Hook, 1995). President Clinton’s initial embrace of UN-sponsored sustainable-development efforts was almost entirely suspended after the 1994 congressional elections, and U.S. support for multilateral development efforts decreased considerably in their aftermath. The new Republican majority in Congress opted instead for unilateral solutions, symbolized in 1995 by a $262 billion defense budget for fiscal year 1996 that was $12 billion more than the Pentagon requested. And a presidential campaign that dominated national attention was largely silent on foreign policy.

More generally, the executive-legislative impasse within the U.S. government, which forced the repeated closing of the federal government in 1995, prevented a redefinition of U.S. “grand strategy” in the post-Cold War era. Given his domestic preoccupations, Clinton largely abandoned his earlier attempt to redefine U.S. policy based upon the enlargement of democratic rule. As a result, many aspects of U.S. foreign policy – including foreign aid – were placed on automatic pilot, with little innovation or central coordination. The United State, though the world’s wealthiest and most powerful state by virtually any measure, was unable to exploit its advantages and to lead the effort to address global problems in the wake of the Cold War. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s April 1996 proclamation that the global environment had become a vital ingredient of U.S. national security consequently fell on deaf ears, overshadowed by presidential politics.

During the early 1990s the Japanese government faced its own protracted internal crisis, which overshadowed its expanding involvement in international development efforts. This political and economic crisis left Japan’s inefficient system of disbursing economic aid largely intact. As a result, Japan continued to lag behind other major donors in closely watched qualitative aspects of foreign aid, as proclaimed reforms were undercut by domestic infighting. More broadly, Japan’s domestic difficulties hindered its ability to exploit its stature as an economic superpower and to play a stronger role in the United Nations and other multilateral fore.

As described in Chapter 6, Western European donors fell victim to the cross-pressures of national and transnational concerns. As the Cold War receded into history, a wide range of domestic priorities emerged, and these in turn elicited a revival of ethnic and nationalist tensions. The European Union expanded its membership and pursued a Common Foreign and Security Policy as part of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty but persistent strains at the state level limited the prospects for collaboration in important policy areas. And the EU’s failure to take concerted or coherent action in response to the spreading Balkan crisis revealed fundamental shortcomings in its plan for foreign-policy integration. Nordic donors, meanwhile, abandoned their recipient-oriented approach to international development in the name of both domestic austerity and regional coalescence with the EU.

Meanwhile, OPEC was never able to reconcile the clashing interests of its member states with the proclaimed collective objectives of the cartel. Within these states a small number of political elites embarked upon lavish domestic projects in the name of modernization, but by the mid-1990s the living conditions in most OPEC nations had improved only marginally from their levels of the early 1970s, when OPEC exploded onto the international scene. The tangible contributions of OPEC donors to international development fell below expectations from the outset, and the prolonged the slump in oil prices eliminated their prospects to play a meaningful role North-South relations.

Domestic politics also plays a critical role within recipient governments, of course, as many chapters of this volume have illustrated. Converting aid into effective development relies on credible administration within LDCs along with adequate means to implement aid-funded programs. Frequently during the Cold War, however, neither condition pertained; the mere presence of bilateral aid from either of the great powers was seen as sufficient to serve its geopolitical, ideological, or neocolonial interest within recipient states. Thus aid was often transferred to autocratic LDCs whose leaders exploited the funds for personal gain or used them for cosmetic projects that did little to alleviate poverty or stimulate long-term development. By contrast, in the less ideologically charged climate of the post-Cold War period, with democratic governments established in a growing number of LDCs, conditions are more favorable for the effective implementation of development projects funded through foreign aid.

Taken together, these essays illustrate the precarious role of foreign aid as an instrument of statecraft, which to some degree is understandable given the relative youth of the global aid regime. Most bilateral aid programs will be less than forty years old at the turn of the century, and the organized and well-documented aid behavior of OECD states is a product of the 1970s. The cross-national malaise may also be understandable given the habitually slow adaptation of national governments to fundamental systemic changes. Foreign-aid donors initiated most aid programs in the context of the superpower rivalry and in the midst of a decolonization process that tripled the number of nation-states and introduced the pernicious term “Third World.” Many recipients, meanwhile, became accustomed to annual infusions of concessional funding from several sources and were not prepared when the rationales for them came under scrutiny after the Cold War.

Industrialized states outside of Japan, so long accustomed to utilizing foreign aid to pursue narrow Cold War goals or to sustain postcolonial ties, have only in the 1990s turned to transnational concerns of sustainable development. Although their leaders were loath to admit it, these donor governments faced a continuing uphill battle to claim legitimacy for large-scale aid efforts only indirectly and ephemerally connected to their perceived national interests. The problems outlined in the Earth Summit’s concluding manifesto, Agenda 21, were arguably salient at the global level but difficult to prioritize domestically in the context of more tangible and short-term concerns. Given that all twenty-one members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee were representative democracies with multiple channels of access, the subordination of abstract transnational initiatives to diffused subnational priorities was a logical outcome. In this respect the level of support for sustainable development that remained after strategic allies, trading partners, domestic interest groups, and debt-ridden NICs were accommodated is somewhat surprising.

Members of the OECD (1995a: 73) remained optimistic that the leveling off of aid flows recorded in the early and mid-1990s was “a bout of weakness, rather than an incipient collapse.” Most donors and international development agencies were encouraged by the proliferations of private financial flows to LDCs, even though such flows were largely restricted to states already liberated form the most desperate living conditions. Future prospects for aid depended upon the performance of the remaining recipients in utilizing the more limited funds they received. But, as always, their performance was dependent upon wealth states’ political and economic conditions and their willingness to expend their public resources in the form of foreign aid.

The development-aid regime appears to have attained a sufficiently broad base within the international political economy to withstand their period of uncertainty. Leaders of industrialized countries have found common cause with the OECD, IMF, and other multilateral conduits of aid and have clearly recognized the growing dangers of rapid population growth in LDCs, mounting foreign debt, the exhaustion of finite natural resources, and the unrest and regional conflict that so often springs from socioeconomic distress. Of greater relevance for the longevity of the aid regime, developed nations have apprehended the benefits they can realize when LDCs become viable actors in the global economy. All of these motivations have assured the extension of foreign aid well into the new millennium, although coherent collective action to preserve the global commons is still a long way off.

Prospects for AID Recipients

The contributors to Part 3 of this volume considered the experience of aid recipients, and their essays demonstrated the variability of foreign aid processes and outcomes across regional boundaries. Recipients of foreign aid must frequently align their political, economic, and security interests with those of wealthy aid donors, a practice that preceded the Cold War and will remain a mainstay of the aid regime far into the future. Thus, aid-recipient behavior must be viewed, in part, as refracting the policy preferences of donor governments and multilateral development agencies.

For many LDCs struggling in the wake of the Cold War, the conditionalities of development aid effectively structure their government and business sectors. Standards of good governance must be met through tangible expenditures on police, court, and electoral systems; recipient transparency requires the presence of a sizable and professionally trained civil service; and liberal macroeconomic policies reward and encourage private investors, often from overseas, along with a commercial class that transforms indigenous cultures and mores. In the past, these same LDCs had to pass ideological litmus tests to receive foreign aid. The substantive contours of aid conditionalities have changed in the post-Cold War period. But the aid relationship’s basic asymmetry, which transcends temporal and spatial boundaries and reflects more basic material inequalities, is the central reality for the developing states reviewed in this volume.

Recipients in Eastern Europe have utilized massive infusions of Western aid largely for purposes of reindustrialization – to rebuild factories, electrical utilities, communications networks, and other infrastructure that had become decrepit under Soviet control. Private investments were not far behind in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and these nations’ progress toward integrating with the world economy has been considerable. By contrast, leaders in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and other transition states have had a difficult time attracting both public and private capital, and across the former Soviet Union the obstacles to economic and political reform remain daunting. A massive $10 billion IMF loan to Boris Yeltsin’s tottering regime in Moscow was seen as giving him a chance to stay in power and save his reform efforts from collapse.

In South Asia, home to the largest segment of the world’s population and its largest networks of foreign aid, LDCs have fragmented along numerous regional, ethnic, religious, and economic fault lines. The Middle East remains a primary recipient of U.S. military and economic assistance; the Indian subcontinent attracts development aid from most major donors; and LDCs along the Pacific Rim have become accustomed to complementary aid and trade ties to Japan. Private investment, however, has been largely limited to East Asia, where Japan and the Asian Tigers have become role models of state-driven, export-led industrialization. Given the continuing strategic interests of major donors – quite apart from the degree of human need in South Asia – the concentration of global aid flows to this region is likely to continue.

The peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, the most distressed region of the developing world, face a much more uncertain future. Both the Cold War and decolonization rationales that once guided many bilateral aid programs have dissolved, and private investors have been conspicuously absent. Leaders in sub-Saharan Africa have watched as the United States has closed several missions, reduced funding levels, and redirected aid resources to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The Japanese government failed to play a significant role in the region, further limiting the availability of development assistance. As we found, however, the traditional involvement of France and Great Britain – former colonial rulers in sub-Saharan Africa – and of Scandinavian donors has provided some relief. But in an era when public aid is increasingly predicated upon private investment with tangible short-term returns, sub-Saharan Africa well likely be further isolated within the international system in general and the developing world in particular.

In Latin America, living conditions have improved in many areas, and democratically elected governments have assumed power in virtually every state. But high levels of foreign debt continue to soak up foreign aid, removing capital from more productive uses that might improve living conditions in these largely impoverished states. As always, the foreign-policy priorities of the United States have dominated the process; most recently, the drug war rendered Bolivia its primary Latin American recipient in the early 1990s. The Japanese government has in some cases compensated for U.S. aid cutbacks across South America, where Tokyo discovered fertile territory for corporate expansion and commercial lending. In general, the terms of aid transfers to Latin America have improved in the post-Cold War era, now the era of the anticommunist dictator is behind us.

In general, we have witnessed a paradoxical pattern among recipients of foreign assistance in the post-Cold War period. Foreign aid has increasingly been directed toward more affluent LDCs and middle-income countries that already have established a record of economic growth, internal political stability, and pacific relations with their neighbors. On the one hand, this is an encouraging trend that promises to hasten the economic ascension of these middle-income states. On the other hand, in a stagnant or contracting global aid network, less support is available to those in greatest need. For these and other reasons, the economic polarization of the developing world is likely to widen, as is the gap between rich and poor, abetted both by the growing role of private capital transfers and by the tightening linkages between private capital and foreign aid. In the short and medium terms this pattern likely will sustain the aid regime, which since its inception has been based upon the convergence of donor and recipient interests. In the long run, however, the worsening plight of marginalized societies will demand international attention. As their needs continue to be neglected because of the domestic constraints of donors and the new paradigm of development thought reviewed through this volume, the human costs of this neglect will escalate. This problem will only be resolved after the incentives for collaboration have improved or the costs of ignoring transnational problems have become prohibitive.

The Development Paradox

Most foreign-aid programs today encourage recipients to build foundations for market-driven, export-led industrial expansion. It is axiomatic that rapid industrialization and urbanization provide the best hope for curbing global population growth, which has emerged as the most urgent problem facing humankind. But what are the costs of this strategy?

The world’s population, which reached 1 billion in 1800, doubled to 2 billion in just 125 years and to 4 billion by 1976. It is generally assumed that today’s world population of 5.7 billion will reach 11 billion by 21000 before stabilizing at this level or turning downward (United Nations, 1990). Nearly all of this growth will occur in the developing world, more specifically in the most impoverished societies, where fertility rates are the highest. The population of Africa, for example, is expected to more than double from its current 650 million, reaching 1.6 billion by 2025, whereas the populations of the United States and Western Europe are expected to grow at a much smaller rate. As Kennedy (1993: 46) correctly observed, “The issue of global demographic imbalances between richer and poorer societies forms the backdrop to all the other important forces for change that are taking place.”

The linkage between industrialization and improved living standards – higher life expectancies, personal incomes, and literacy rates – is also axiomatic. The causal chain then extends from economic structure to regime type, following Kantian and Schumpeterian assumptions about the democratic correlates of advanced industrial economies and their reliance upon stable, representative governments. Finally, the model holds that these societies will be necessarily pacific toward one another, induced to cooperation by mutual self-interest and pluralistic governments.

This is the basic logic of contemporary development thought, which has assumed widespread currency in the absence of the Cold War’s geopolitical pressures and ideological polarization. Althogh fundamental differences remain over the scope of state action in furthering economic growth and distributing resources to its citizens, this model pervades the development manifestos of the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, and OECD, providing a blueprint for developing countries hoping to attract concessional funding as well as private investment.

This model, an outgrowth of demographic-transition theories that project a stabilizing world population in the mid-twenty-first century, is unarguably supported by empirical evidence, although birth and death rates have varied widely even among states at similar levels of development (Kegley and Wittkopf, 1995: 301-305). More fundamentally, it raises vexing environmental issues which have yet to be resolved. I shall refer to this as the “development paradox.”

The development paradox centers upon the ecological consequences of rapid industrialization: accelerating habitat destruction, air and water pollution, and skyrocketing rates of consumption. It is inevitable that in the short run greater ecological decay will be the correlate of accelerated industrialization. If megacities such as Mexico City, São Paulo, and Jakarta are reproduced throughout the developing world, their inhabitants will find the benefits of population control to be overshadowed by the costs of ecological contamination. Further, the environmental damage they face will be felt far beyond their borders.

The environmental maladies noted above, of course, all characterized U.S. industrial expansion in the early decades of the twentieth century. With just 4 percent of the world’s population in the mid-1990s, the United States accounted for approximately 25 percent of annual world oil consumption (Wald, 1990). As other states experience their own industrial revolution in the next millennium, they likely will replicate the U.S. penchant for national consumption on a global scale.

The Chinese government announced in 1994 that among its major economic priorities in the second half of the decade would be the expansion of the PRC’s automotive industry. Not only would the PRC produce more vehicles for export, in keeping with the Japanese mold, but government plans also called for developing the vast interior of China and extending the network of modern highways across the country. As a result the PRC, whose densely crowded population of 1.2 billion has largely retained traditional modes of transportation and agriculture to the benefit of the country’s ecological balance, will likely witness an ominous explosion of oil consumption and emissions, accentuated by the planned expansion of coal-fired power plants. Other heavily populated LDCs have announced similar plans for modernization and likely will repeat China’s reliance on coal-burning electrical utilities.

One need not proclaim that the sky is falling to recognize the precarious nature of the environment and to demonstrate how disruptive these key demographic and ecological trends are for its ongoing stability. The human race has shown an impressive ability both to overwhelm its natural environment and to adapt to the fundamental changes in economic conditions, societal customs, and modes of governance that ensue.

The central question is not so much when the world’s population will peak but how the corresponding increases in fuel consumption, habitat and wildlife destruction, and air and water pollution can be held in check. For development to be truly sustainable, it must not only utilize privatization and good governance – both of which are essential components – but also make provision for limiting toxic industrial emissions, preserving sufficient natural habitat, building adequate water-treatment facilities, and requiring the use of fuel-efficient vehicles.

A related development paradox, unfortunately, calls this effort into question. Simply put, environmental restraint violates the logic of collective action (Olson, 1971). Political and economic leaders today face neither incentives nor the penalties sufficient to prevent from ignoring those aspects of sustainable development whose short-term costs outweigh their potential long-term benefits. Immediate concerns (such as preventing the demise of reform in Russia) do indeed warrant the attention they have received, but as a result less pressing but equally vital concerns go unaddressed.

The demise of most military-aid programs is one of the most welcome developments of the post-Cold War era, although continued large-scale transfers of weaponry on market terms are just as problematic as concessional military aid. It will be a colossal folly if the demise of the Soviet arms industry and the post-Cold War relaxation of global tensions does not lead to demilitarization in many poor regions and a tragedy if LDCs are compelled to follow the U.S. lead and consider military exports a viable source of national income. But that is the probable outcome of current trends, and a natural consequence of free riding by the world’s most affluent states.

The growing amalgamation of foreign aid and private investments has lessened the influence of the UN and, to a lesser extent, the OECD in many development debates and expanded that of the World Bank, IMF, and regional development banks. Though they rhetorically embrace the UN’s call for sustainable development, the latter agents of foreign aid have been more preoccupied with global economic emergences such as the Mexican peso crisis and the precarious reform effort in Russia. Such cases have demonstrated both the fragility of the global economy and the potential for isolated economic crises to overwhelm the concessional funding sources. In an era of belt-tightening within many governments and of backlash against foreign aid, they have magnified the diversification of aid from long-term ecological priorities to short-term economic ones. This may ultimately represent the least “sustainable” aspect of the contemporary foreign-aid regime.

Despite these obstacles and the growing deficiencies of many aid policies, development assistance will continue to play a crucial role in the international political economy, as demonstrated by the numerous and diverse ways in which it has been applied to global relations since World War II. It has served as a most malleable policy instrument – in the sheer quantity of aid, the selection of aid recipients, the functions of aid-funded projects, and the terms upon which grants and concessional loads are disbursed. As noted throughout this volume, foreign aid has contributed greatly to the improvement of living conditions in many distressed parts of the world; there are many success stories of international development. In the 1980s and 1990s aid programs have paid for many of the crucial costs of democratization – supervising and certifying elections, creating effective and just police forces, and establishing court systems that consistently enforce constitutional protections. The failure of UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Bosnia, furthermore, must not obscure successful efforts in Southeast Asia, Central America, and southwest Africa.

For all of these reasons, foreign aid remains a vital issue in world politics at the end of the second millennium. It has proven itself to be a force for constructive change, even while serving as an agent for the perceived self-interests of wealthy states. As the contributors to this volume have argued, the central and intractable tension between these two opposing forces will likely shape international development long into the future.

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