The Roles of Aid in Politics Putting China in Perspective

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Rai, Kul B. (1980), “Foreign Aid and Voting in the UN General Assembly, 1967-1976,” in Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 269-277, Sage Publications, Ltd.

In the case of American foreign aid, our findings support the first hypothesis on the use of aid as an inducement more than the second hypothesis on the use of aid as a reward or a punishment. In the case of the Soviet foreign aid, there is greater evidence in support of the second hypothesis than the first hypothesis. The American aid has certainly been more effective as an inducement to the recipients to vote similarly with the United States in the period 1967-76, or rather 1970-75, than was the case in 1961-65 (see my studies, 1970 and 1972). It has been, however, used less effectively as a reward or a punishment in this period than in 1963-66 (see Wittkopf, 1973). The findings on the Soviet aid support the behavior patterns of the Soviet Union and its aid recipients in the General Assembly discerned in 1961-65 also (my studies, 1970 and 1972).

Causality cannot be concluded from correlations, even if they are quite high, and causality between foreign aid and the General Assembly votes is not even implied in this paper. However, the correlations discussed in this study do suggest the consideration of foreign aid and the General Assembly votes in relation to each other by the decision-makers in the donor as well as the recipient countries. Further research on such ‘consideration’ would bring us closer to establishing causality between foreign aid and the General Assembly votes, if indeed it exists

Riddell, Roger C. (2008), Does Foreign Aid Really Work?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

6. The Political and Commercial Dimensions of Aid

[…] The clear conclusion of this chapter is that political, commercial and other criteria than the developmental and humanitarian motives for providing aid matter greatly. The ways that aid is allocated and the tying of aid have profound effects on the overall contribution of aid to development and welfare goals. Aid always has been, and still is, provided for non-developmental purposes, contributing to and shaping the way that it has been allocated, and the forms in which it is provided. Overall, the evidence forcibly shows, although not as rigorously as one might like, that these influences have reduced and continue to reduce aid’s potential development and welfare effects. In many cases, political influences have also accentuated the volatility of aid-giving, reducing its potential impact still further. In a recent study, Collier, Goderis and Hoeffler (2006) find that political shocks are more damaging to poor countries than natural shocks. The politics of aid remains central to any discussion of whether and how aid works.

7. Public Support for Aid

[…] The title of this book, Does Foreign Aid Really Work?, is based on the premise that the impact of aid is an issue of major importance: what aid achieves really matters. But what is the link between public support for aid and their views on the impact of aid? A widely shared assumption is that support for aid is closely correlated with its impact: support for aid rises to the extent it is known to work, and falls to the extent that there is evidence that it doesn’t. Opinion poll data frequently seem to confirm this. For instance, in a 2003 poll on aid to Africa, 33 per cent of Americans said they believed aid to the continent to be higher than it is. When asked whether they though aid to Africa should be increased if they had more confidence that it would really help those who needed it, support for increasing aid more than doubled to reach 08 per cent of those polled (PIPA 2003: 5-6).

Official donors and NGOs and many aid researchers take it as given that support for aid is not only based upon, but needs to be based upon, evidence of its success. Reflecting this view, in a major study of the political economy of aid, Hopkins argues that ‘a major condition for sustainability of future aid is the belief in its efficacy’ (2000: 445). More controversially, this belief has all too often been used by donors as a motive for giving prominent publicity to stories of aid’s successes, in the hope that this will boost support for aid, regardless of whether these stories are representative of all aid. The importance of the relationship between aid impact and support for aid was well expressed in the 1986 OECD/DAC annual report reviewing 225 years of aid-giving, which stated boldly, and without qualification, that ‘maintaining and strengthening public support for aid can be facilitated by more effective communication of … the successes that … aid has achieved’ (OECD 1986: 63). In contrast, as discussed at length in Part III of this book, the evidence of aid’s impact is decidedly mixed: the impact of aid is usually dependent upon the context in which it is given and the commitment and ability of the recipient to use it effectively. In reality, while some aid does work, a significant proportion of aid does not achieve its objectives, and most aid is less effective than both donors and recipients would wish.

Against the reality of the impact of aid, donors could adopt three different approaches to providing information to the public:

  1. Try to convince the public that some aid does indeed work.

  2. Try to convince the public that steps are being taken to enhance the impact of aid, by trying to reduce the number of cases where it does not work well.

  3. Try to nurture, extend and deepen support for aid, acknowledging that a significant part of it is clearly ineffective, and sharing knowledge about aid’s failures as well as its evident successes.

In practice, both official donors and NGOs have focused their efforts overwhelmingly on the first two approaches. They have deliberately avoided addressing the third challenge almost entirely. Donors have never really thought about coming forward and providing the public with a rounded view of the evidence of its impact, presumably believing that evidence of failure will undermine public support for aid.10

What is therefore of particular interest is that one of the clear and consistent findings of public opinion polls on foreign aid across almost all donor countries is the high degree of support there is for foreign aid among people who believe that aid is failing to achieve its objectives. Contrary to the ‘common-sense view’ and some opinion poll data which suggest that support for aid is dependent on evidence that it works, there is a significant group of people who would appear to be supportive of aid even when they know, or believe, that it has not been working well. If the views expressed by these people and reflected in these polls accurately reflect wider public opinion, then aid failure is not the kiss of death to public support for aid that donors believe – and dread.

Table 7.1 presents evidence which shows this, summarizing recent poll data for the leading 22 OECD/DAC donor countries. It does this by placing the overall level of support for aid (column A) alongside the percentage of people who do not believe that aid achieves its objectives (column B). The figures in column C are derived by subtracting the proportion of those who do not support aid at all (100 minus the figures in Column A) from the proportion of people who judge aid to be a failure (Column B).11 This proportion of people who support aid but judge it a failure is termed ‘the Gap.’ As is clearly shown, in every donor country except New Zealand (comparable data for Norway could not be found), there is a greater percentage of people who believe aid is not effective than who are not in favor of foreign aid.12 In eight countries – Belgium, Canada, Italy, Greece, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States – more than 20 per cent of the population who are supportive of aid believe it is not effective; and in the case of four of these eight countries – Canada, Spain, the UK and the US – the figure is 30 per cent or higher.13

There is other evidence which not merely confirms this finding but suggests that these figures could well underestimate the phenomenon.14 For instance, in Denmark, where public knowledge about aid issues is amongst the highest of all countries, polls suggest that almost 50 per cent of people believe that aid doesn’t work yet, consistently over time, 75 per cent and more of the public remain supportive of aid (OECD 2001: 24-5). Likewise, in Norway in the 1980s, widespread publicity highly critical of Norwegian aid was spread across the Norwegian media but support for aid remained high (Bøås 2002: 4).

Most researchers who have commented on the phenomenon of people supporting aid when they believe it is ineffective have referred to it as an anomaly, a contradiction or a paradox, in some cases suggesting that it is an indicator of the shallowness of public understanding of foreign aid. But why should this be so? Why not take the findings at face value? Might it not be that a significant proportion of people do indeed support the giving of aid even when they know it is highly likely that it may not be effective?15 Contrary to the mainstream view, some have suggested that this is the case. For example, in his review of support for aid in the United States, Rice observes that in spite of aid being widely perceived as ineffective and wasted, ‘this opinion does not dissuade many Americans from supporting assistance efforts’ (1996: 74).

If significant numbers of people do support aid-giving when they know much of it doesn’t work, we need to try to understand why. It is likely that for many, this could have something to do with their understanding of the moral case for providing aid. It is to this issue that we now turn.

8. Charity or Duty? The Moral Case for Aid

There is a strong moral case for providing aid. This has been continually and repeatedly argued since aid was first given. Most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) believe that aid should be provided almost entirely for moral reasons, while practically all individuals, companies and foundations who give voluntarily to support the work of humanitarian and development charities do so because of some sense of responsibility or duty to help people suffering and in need. Perhaps not so widely known is that governments have also repeatedly stated that they provide aid for moral reasons. Consequently, ethics is central to any discussion of aid and why it is given.

The purpose of this chapter and the next is too look closely at the moral case for giving aid, by holding up to scrutiny the different elements which constitute the moral case for aid. What precisely is meant by the claim that aid should be provided for moral reasons? Does it mean that governments and people should give and respond to the needs merely ‘out of the kindness of their hearts’? In other words, should aid-giving be viewed solely as an act of charity, where the giver feels good in giving, but there is no particular requirement to give, and no link to any rights that those who receive aid might have? Or does it mean that there is a moral duty or obligation to provide aid? Further, if governments – in contrast to individuals­ – have obligations and responsibilities to provide aid, what precisely is the nature of these obligations? If individuals and governments have obligations to provide aid, how much needs to be provided to satisfy that obligation? How do government obligations to provide aid rank in relation to other obligations and responsibilities that governments have within their own countries? What moral obligations do NGOs have in providing aid? Perhaps most crucially and controversially, to what extent do the obligations or responsibilities or rich governments to provide aid require them to work together to ensure sufficient aid is provided? What happens to the ‘duty’ of give if aid is not used for the purpose intended?

These are all important questions; a number are quite complex and have been given a range of different answers. They extend the discussion about aid to the disciplines of moral and political philosophy, and also to the field of international relations, where a number of answers to these questions are keenly debated and remain contested. Increasingly over the past 20 years, the ethical dimensions of aid-giving, and aid-receiving, have been the focus of attention of scholars working in the relatively new area of the ethics of development.1 Against the backdrop of a large and growing literature, the ambitions of this chapter and the next are modest: more to provide an overview of the key issues involved in making the moral case for aid than to engage in an in-depth discussion of the merits of all the different arguments. That would require a book in itself. The next chapter looks at the reasons that governments and individuals give in arguing the moral case for providing aid, and hold these up to scrutiny. The present chapter prepares the ground for that discussion by examining the different elements which contribute to making the moral case for aid.

At the heart of the discourse about the moral basis for aid-giving lies the notion of obligation. However, most theories of and approaches to obligation skip over, take as read, or simply assume that aid is needed, and that it works. This chapter takes a more holistic approach. First, it discusses, briefly, the basic ‘facts on the ground’ upon which almost all theories of obligation to provide aid are based. It then looks at the different ethical theories, theories of justice, and perspectives based on a human-rights framework which have been used to argue the moral case for providing aid. […]

9. The Moral Case for Governments and Individuals to Provide Aid

This chapter examines the ways that governments, individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) explain why they believe there is a moral obligation for them to provide aid. The bulk of the chapter focuses on the moral case for governments to provide aid. It starts by summarizing the explanations that different governments have given to explain why they believe they have a moral obligation to provide aid. It then holds up these statements to scrutiny, assessing them both against the different theories and approaches discussed in Chapter 8 and against the changes taking place in the world. It discusses ways in which thinking about governments, aid and mortality are shifting, and perhaps being fundamentally altered, as a result of changes in global politics and international relations, and of changes in approaches to human rights. The last section of the chapter moves the focus away governments to look at the ethics of individuals aid-giving and some of the new moral questions and dilemmas that voluntary agencies and NGOs are having to face.

Donor Governments: Current and Evolving Values

Most governments claim that there is a moral reason for them to provide aid. Many official donors have also explicitly stated that they have some sort of obligation or responsibility to provide aid, thus moving the discussion about aid and mortality well beyond the narrower confines of charitable giving.1 If there is amoral case for providing aid, there must be a moral problem, or set of moral problems, which the provision of aid is meant to address.2 Contrary to what one might at first suppose, however, both among themselves and over time, donors have differed in their articulation of the core problems and sets of issues from which they conclude that they have a responsibility, duty or obligation to provide aid.

For Scandinavian donors, the notion of ‘solidarity’ has been a particularly important and prominent reason for providing aid. Some forty years ago, in 1962, when its parliament authorized Sweden to provide official aid, it needed ‘no other motivation than moral duty and international solidarity’ (Andersson 1986: 29).3 These motives still have strong resonance today. Recently, Denmark stated its acceptance of responsibility for supporting development, demonstrated in its ‘solidarity with millions of people in the world whose lives are marked by poverty’.4 For Finland, moral obligation is linked to distributive justice and based on a cosmopolitan view of the world, where rich countries have a particular responsibility for the well-being of citizens in poorer countries. Also for Finland, distribution issues are important: given the growing wealth of the world ‘it would be morally indefensible to make no effort to tackle these inequalities, and for this reason rich countries give money to development co-operation’.5

Likewise for the Netherlands, a fair distribution of wealth, social justice, and non-discrimination are presented as important factors explaining why aid is given, while, for the Irish aid programme, absolute priority is given to the reduction of poverty, inequality and exclusion in developing countries. For the United Kingdom the objectives of international development are embraced by the government because it is ‘right to do so’: ‘Every generation has a moral duty to reach out to the poor and needy and to try to create a more just world’ (DFID 1997: 16). World poverty, says Tony Blair, ‘is one of the greatest moral challenges we face’ (DFID 2006c: ii).

Beyond the European Union, similar, sometimes strong assertions have also been made about the moral obligation to provide aid. These have also been explained in different ways. For Norway, development policy is ‘not about charity’: the fight for poverty is a fight for justice. As one of the richest nations, Norway accepts its moral responsibility not only to combat justice and promote development, but to make a difference, playing its role in speeding up reforms to reduce poverty, and allocating resources to fulfill its obligations.6 In North America, both Canada and the United States have continuously expressed the view that providing humanitarian aid, in particular, is a moral imperative.7 In the case of the United States, the government has pledged to provide humanitarian assistance solely on the basis of urgent need, reflecting the concern ‘for saving lives and alleviating suffering, regardless of the character of their governments’ (USAID 2004: 20). The moral obligation to provide development aid was, perhaps, most clearly articulated by President Kennedy, whose words are still prominently displayed on the USAID website: ‘Why, then, should the United States continue a foreign economic assistance program? The answer is that there is no escaping our obligations: our moral obligations as a wise leader and good neighbor in the interdependent community of free nations; our economic obligations as the wealthiest people in a world of largely poor people … To fail to meet those obligations now would be disastrous’.8

Historically, extreme poverty, dire need and human suffering, contrasted with growing wealth, widening inequalities and the ability to help, have provided the main cluster of reasons for donors to suggest or assert that they have a moral obligation to assist, and provide aid. In recent years, these reasons have been linked to, and in some cases eclipsed or replaced by, an explicit focus on human rights, complementing and, in some ways, recasting the way that the moral case for providing aid is understood. The rights-based perspective in aid-giving has been particularly prominent in the justifications articulated by Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden. For example, Germany has recently stated that all its development work, including its aid-giving, now takes place within a human rights framework, the core objective of which is the respect, protection and fulfillment of rights (of poor people), for which the international community, including Germany, is partly responsible. Indeed, Germany has asserted that human rights not only the moral, but also the legal basis for development. For Norway, the ‘fight for justice’ is, in essence, a human rights agenda, with Norway contributing to the realization of economic, social and cultural as well as civil and political rights. For Finland, a ‘justice-based’ approach to development implies that the fulfillment of rights defined in human rights agreements provides the starting point for its support. For Switzerland, aid-giving is part of a process of helping in the realization of basic rights, with human rights providing the framework through which its work on addressing problems of poverty is approached. Switzerland has committed itself to using binding human rights treaties and mechanism as the basis for its work at both the bilateral and multilateral level.9

Box 9.1 summarizes the different reasons that donors have given to explain why they believe there are moral grounds for them to provide aid.


  • On the basis of ‘solidarity’.

  • In response to human suffering: the humanitarian imperative.

  • In response to extreme poverty, need, marginalization and exclusion.

  • In order to enhance human freedoms, and to contribute to human development, and to the realization of capabilities.

  • In order to extend and enhance the fulfillment of human rights, especially ‘core’ or ‘basic’ rights.

  • Because of inequalities, notably wide and widening, or growing relative wealth compared with those living in extreme poverty.

  • For reasons of distributive or social justice and fairness, to contribute to the fairer distribution of wealth.

  • To secure a safer, more secure and peaceful world, including for the donor’s own citizens.a

a It is sometimes claimed that the moral case for providing aid is different from that for providing aid for self-interested reasons. However, this is too narrow a view. There can (often) be strong moral reasons for counties to ensure the long-term interests of their citizens.

It is not only governments which have evoked morality as the basis for giving aid. In presenting the ‘case for aid’, and after posing the question why rich countries should provide aid, the World Bank’s response was that human being have a basic responsibility to alleviate suffering and to prevent the needless deaths of other human beings. They not only have a ‘moral obligation to share their good fortune with others,’ but failure to take action is deemed to be ‘morally reprehensible’ (Stern 2002: 15-16). Similarly, in 2004, the Managing Director of the IMF asserted that the rich countries bear the ‘greatest responsibilities’ for achieving the goals of poverty reduction as encapsulated in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), by meeting their commitments to provide higher levels of aid (quoted in UN Millennium Project 2005: 197). In 2005, the 22 member states of the European Union signed the ‘European Consensus on Development’, agreeing not only that ‘combating poverty is a moral obligation’, but that progress in eradicating poverty will help to build a more interdependent world where we ‘would not allow’ one billion people to struggle on less than one dollar a day.10

Aid and the Nature of Government’s Moral Obligations

Governments say aid is a moral issue and say they provide aid because it is morally right to do so. But in what sense do governments have a moral obligation to provide aid? If governments do have an obligation to provide aid, what does that obligation entail: precisely how should they respond to the problems of extreme poverty against the backdrop of their large and growing wealth and the widening gulf between rich and poor sketched out in Chapter 8? If governments have moral obligations to provide aid, are these obligations which apply solely to individual donors, or are there wider obligations which extend beyond the confines of the choices that individual governments make in isolation? These are fundamentally important questions, but they remain insufficiently discussed and examined.

A key issue in determining whether governments have obligations to the distant needy revolves around the question of the ‘moral unit’ around which the discussion is cast. While to cosmopolitans it is clear and self-evident that the basic moral unit is the world, for many others, this is self-evidently wrong. Indeed, it would seem to be at variance with one of the most fundamental tenets of international relations and the way that governments have thought about issues of morality and obligation. For many people, that fact that we inhabit a world consisting of different nation states, and that there is no world government and no state wants one, means that moral obligations need to be framed within the prevailing state-based system. Consequently, it is the state which constitutes the core moral unit around which obligations and potential obligations evolve.11 As governments views the world through the lens of states, we will begin the discussion on governments, morality and aid-giving by considering the core moral unit to be the state, and states, though the discussion will subsequently be broadened to the international ‘system of states’, not least because this is what states themselves increasingly have been doing.

Against this backdrop, we now look in turn at governments, aid and morality through three different lenses. The first, which we will call the ‘narrow absolutist perspective’, assumes that governments only have moral obligations to their own citizens. The second, called the ‘mixed perspective’, assumes that donor governments have some moral obligations to the poor beyond their borders but these obligations are weak and can usually be trumped by moral obligations at home. The third, called ‘an evolving international perspective’, assumes that the moral obligations of states are in part formed and shaped by factors and decisions beyond their borders which, in turn, influence the traditional mix of obligations between citizens and non-citizens. […]

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