The Roles of Aid in Politics Putting China in Perspective



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Burnell, Peter (1991), “Introduction to Britain's Overseas Aid: Between Idealism and Self-Interest,” in Bose, Anurdha and Burnell, Peter (eds.), Britain’s Overseas Aid Since 1979: Between Idealism and Self-Interest, pp. 1-31, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Burnell, Peter (1993), “Good Government and Democratization: A Sideways Look at Aid and Conditionality,” in Democratization, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 485-503.

Some aspects of the aid donors' current interest in political conditionality are examined in the light of perspectives from the aid receiving world. The chances of implementing policies for good government successfully through the attachment of political conditions to aid will be served by: clarity of aims and objectives on the part of the donors; transparency of purpose and consistency in application; a strategic grasp of the political complexities of each aid receiving country, in order that the application of conditionality does not weaken the friends of good government and arm its opponents. Ideally, the modus operandi of political conditionality should exhibit the very same characteristics that are held to provide the reasons for attaching the conditions, such as transparency and greater openness, accountability and the rule of law. In practice this ideal may be unattainable, especially with regard to reconciling the moral of political accountability in the aid-receiving countries with the realities of power and influence in international relations.



Burnell, Peter (1997), “The Changing Politics of Foreign Aid – Where to Next?” in Politics, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 117-125, Political Studies Association.

Aid cannot be proven to have become more, or less political with the passage of time. In the 1990s there is a new politics of aid whose intention is to promote systemic political change in recipient countries. But the old politics, incorporated in exchange conditions, have not gone away. Indeed, aid's tie with what donors understand as their national interests is ‘virtually axiomatic’ (Hook, 1995: xi). Thus, some familiar goals continue to motivate the what, who, why and wherefores of foreign aid, with consequences that often conflict with pure models of aid for good governance, democracy and human rights. The nature of aid relationships continue to be coloured by the respective bargaining strengths of the participants.

Furthermore, there is a belief that the conditionalities of structural economic adjustment, which continue to be attached to aid, threaten to undermine the democratic prospects, in two ways. In so far as they are responsible for social discontents which produce divisions in society, the consolidation of stable democratic government is made more difficult. And to the extent that these economic measures are believed to be imposed by non-accountable external bodies and in far from transparent ways, national self-determination becomes a chimera. That means societies have some cause to become more apathetic about the electoral process and indifferent to whether elections reshuffle government. Moreover, democratisation that is accepted primarily as an unproven passport to sustained economic progress could prove a shallow rooted phenomenon, rendered vulnerable to disappointed material expectations. In any case, democracy understood as a condition of political equality, achievable only in the absence of great socio-economic inequalities, seems not to be an aim. Also excluded is the democratic reform of international and multilateral development and other organisations where big powers, wealthier OECD countries in particular, tend to dominate, especially the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and United Nations Security Council.

Some observers are deeply sceptical about aid’s ability to survive much longer on anything like its former scale. They see it being overtaken by the benefits of vastly increased international private capital flows and globalisation more generally. But for many countries, aid that buys-back or forgives accumulated foreign debt is essential to improved development prospects. In any case some poor countries are being increasingly marginalised in the world economy. For others, the value of aid as a compensatory device will increase, if globalisation brings disadvantages due to profound asymmetries in the structure of international economic relations (Raffer and Singer, 1996, chapter 2). Elsewhere, where gains are undoubtedly being achieved from greater integration, increases in social deprivation are not uncommon.

The growth in the poor, to well over one billion people (around 30 per cent of the world's population live on less than a dollar equivalent a day) remains the most common justification for aid among its supporters in the West. However, the argument that social objectives of poverty reduction should be introduced more forcefully onto aid's agenda, including forming a third generation conditionality, is not without difficulties. There is little hard evidence to demonstrate the likely effectiveness. And among economists who argue the superior merits of unsubsidized economic and financial markets, and counsel a reducing role for concessionary flows, some believe grant aid especially encourages pauperisation (Ryrie 1995, p. 114). Thus, even if confidence in today's politics of aid soon starts to erode, the connections between aid and poverty will remain relevant to research agendas studying the relationships between development, democratisation and international influences, probably for quite some time to come.

Burnett, Stanton (1992), Investing in Security: Economic Aid for Non-Economic Purposes, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Starting at the End: What the Study Means for Policymakers

Although the analyses done for this study have sparked controversies of interpretation among the groups steering the work (composed principally of social scientists from CSIS, congressional staffers expert in U.S. foreign assistance, and government officials bearing program responsibility), some findings are so clear and agreed that they constitute lessons of history that the future cannot possibly ignore.

The overall record of U.S. economic assistance during the cold war period, of which this study analyses a slice, is clearly a record studded with successes; the difficulties examined here do not detract from the fact that both globally and in many single countries the many programs that transferred U.S. resources to other nations in order to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives did just that. Sometimes the paths taken were surprising; some of the successes were almost accidental, others were buried under failures, problems and unintended consequences; some desired outcomes even came about in spite of conceptual failures on Washington’s part. But U.S. economic and military assistance played a key role in winning the cold war and therefore deserve unblinking analysis in order to increase the odds for success in the new era.

The evidence provided by four full-scale country case studies was broadened by comparison with a CSIS study of similar issues in five sub-Saharan African countries and then by an informal search by the Center’s regional study programs for significant cases that would contradict or complicate the main general themes. Painful though they may be, the conclusions that must be drawn from some of the failures of U.S. wishful thinking, and from some successes and unintended consequences, are too powerful and consistent to go away as foreign economic assistance is considered at a time of sharply limited resources.

The successes in this history have a common thread: what was best achieved lay at ground zero relative to the overt purpose of the aid. That is, whether the aim was economic or noneconomic, programs that were soundly designed and effectively administered were able to achieve their most immediate goals. It proved possible to give aid to build a dam and have the dam built. It proved possible to “pay rent” on a military base and then use the base.1

But distance from these overt, primary objectives reduced the likelihood of success and opened the door for increased unintended consequences. If the building of the dam is designed to provide power for a group of towns, that too can probably be accomplished. If the reason for doing that is to trigger an overall economic improvement in the region, the odds go down and the unpredictability is increased. If the reason for that (improving the entire economy of the region) is to make the governments of that region pro-U.S. liberal democracies, the connections get much less reliable. And if the ultimate goal is to make the citizens pro-U.S. liberal democrats, no one who reads this record can invest any serious hope in such a proposition.

Although important complexities must be introduced in the body of this report, they will not reduce the force of the call that history makes on U.S. policymakers, in both the administration and the Congress, to recognize that they should only decide to invest to build the dam if they are satisfied with the immediate result: getting the dam built. Achieving the immediate ends of such overseas assistance is difficult enough: this study demonstrates the risks of putting forward anything beyond the immediate goal as the reason for making the investment. But it recognizes that programs with multiple and noneconomic goals are still going to be manufactured and so charts a path with the bet odds for success, noting the avoidable traps.

As Ernest Preeg’s Philippine case study demonstrates, the failure to devise sound and achievable overt objectives and then maintain these objectives as the entire content of our serious aspirations for what we intend the aid to accomplish can lead to the result that more harm than good is accomplished for overall U.S. objectives. And, corollary to this, all the case studies demonstrate that extended political and security objectives can be expected to undermine the achievement of the overt economic objectives. The aid community in the United States has long argued for greater purity of purpose (i.e., sound economic goals only) in U.S. foreign assistance, and the study dramatizes why it feels this way. But the study also recognizes that objectives just as compelling as the “old” cold war objectives are already thrusting themselves upon policymakers and so examines the question of how best (and worst) to achieve noneconomic goals with these economic tools; there is little likelihood that policymakers will desist from trying. Indeed, the study recognizes that there have been important noneconomic successes in the past and, with proper strategy and execution, there can be in the future.

The case studies and additional cases informally surveyed confirm a consistent pattern of potential effectiveness for economic assistance when the expectations, planning, execution, and overt goals of the aid are mutually consistent, along with a record of failed wishful thinking in cases not adhering to this discipline.

The case studies and additional research touch frequently on the relationship between the donor’s objectives and the recipient’s objectives and predispositions. Where the U.S. goal conflicted with interests of the recipient regime, or with its perception of those interests, or would have a significant impact on the political struggle between factions in the politics of the receiving country, chances of accomplishing the aid’s purposes were steeply diminished. The perceptions of ruling groups abroad may currently be undergoing some change as a result of the recently observed effects of prosperity on stability

The findings also permit the formulation of important guidelines on whether aid can be anything more than a catalyst for political change, on economic objectives as façade for political intentions, on long-term versus short-term objectives for aid, on the phenomena created by having multiple goals for the same program, on “backlash,” and on U.S. legislation.

And the guidelines below also indicate the advantages and disadvantages that can be expected from cooperation with allies in foreign assistance and how political impact and leverage can be maximized.

Although the scholars carrying out the case studies have focused on the effectiveness of economic aid for achieving selected noneconomic objectives, they were consistently struck by the damage these objectives inflicted on effective use, in economic terms, of the aid for its over primary objectives. This is a proper part of their analysis, because it is part of the cost of this use of aid and other kinds of economic assistance. The reader will find with consistency in the impression that the cost was very high.

There is a discussion in chapter III of a pattern found in the case studies that is suggestive but for which the case studies offer insufficient evidence to label it a “finding.” I points out that recipients of large amounts of aid, such as the Philippines and Pakistan, have poor economic growth and development records, while Mexico, a recipient only of assistance other than official aid, is currently doing remarkably well economically. This is suggestive and significant because of the likely search, under budget pressure, for modes of assistance in the future more similar to the help given Mexico than to official aid for the goal of economic development (as distinguished from humanitarian relief).

The political reality is that political and security purposes were often advanced as the reasons for economic assistance packages, especially if a credible link to the cold war offered itself. The fact that nothing as compelling as the cold war is likely to replace it raises legitimate concerns about the future appropriations for economic assistance coming from legislatures wit the twin dogs of constituency politics and budget deficits snarling at their heels.

The question may come down to whether there is significant political support in the United States for some forms of humanitarian assistance, for international altruism. Even though the purposes of aid are more likely to be achieved if they are not hidden behind other, more “marketable” goals, the political difficulty of coping with suffering abroad when there is suffering at home may cause leaders to continue to base aid requests on whatever rationale has the most domestic appeal.

A second possibility, of course, is that environmental concerns will take on the same urgency, with the same level of national consensus developing behind action and investment, that prevailed during the cold war. Nothing, however, in the action surrounding either the Rio Earth Summit or the early stages of the 1992 U.S. election suggests that Americans are near to this level of national accord and fervor.

But should saving the planet become a new absolutely central national crusade, the United States will face the same challenges defined by this study: avoiding unfounded hopes that generalized economic aid, or even good capital projects that are, nonetheless, unrelated to environmental action, can lead to desired behavior in a different sector. Will a generalized bribe to country X really induce it to protect its rain forest over the long run? Aid for the development and marketing of forest products might have a direct impact in the desired direction, but what response should be made to the country that claims simply that the level of economic desperation is too great to permit fancy environmental policies, that says “Cure the desperation and then we’ll talk about the forests”?

This study suggest pessimism about cutting such a deal.



The Frozen Spigot

Another hard lesson for policymakers that emerges from this study is that the effectiveness of U.S. influence over recipient-country action is in inverse proportion to the perceived importance that Washington attaches to the relationship. If the receiving country believes that the spigot is frozen in the open position, that for reasons of strategic necessity or domestic politics it is not feasible for Washington to close the spigot, the influence the United States derives from the aid sinks close to zero. This piece of common sense is verified throughout the study, as is the Washington habit of acting as though the world did not operate that way.

No policymaker reading this evidence can avoid the necessity of have a credible hand on a turntable spigot in order to influence recipient-country action. If the aim is economic reform and sustained development, Washington must be prepared to suspend aid if the receiving country falters in its commitment to the economic program that the aid is designed to support. The U.S. government must be legally and politically capable of turning down or turning off the flow of assistance. One does not like to think of an unreliable flow while, at the same time, suggesting carefully conceived capital projects have the best chances of success: they need reliability of expectations, the ability to plan without mercurial political meddling. The only way to avoid the tension between these factors is to limit one’s expectations about broad influence in the first place. The study clearly indicates the wisdom of this course.

The spigot-leverage relationship is explored below in the more detailed look at the findings. But the most general implication of these findings is that the probability of success for U.S. economic aid programs will vary enormously from country to country. Whether, however, the economic objective is easy or difficult to attain, achievement of the political or security ends that are supposed to flow from the economic changes. It is nonetheless possible to enhance the chances for success of the latter. Of central importance in doings so is the factor of leverage, which means that the aid should be conditioned on the performance of the receiving country, with the flow of aid credibly linked to realistic and well-understood performance criteria. A question about whether U.S. policymakers really believed that they could work the changes on Philippine or Pakistani economic performance that were announced as the aid’s aim. Whatever the case, politics, not economics, clearly drove the process in the United States and economic aid was perceived as useful for political purposes. So it is striking that this general rule of what can be accomplished and what probably cannot be accomplished holds up even in these cases. “Performance criteria” in the above formulations is a factor usually attached to economic performance, but the rules of leverage are just as much at work in noneconomic spheres.



The Guidelines

The headlines for policymakers announced above are among a number of broad normative guidelines that the findings permit. Behind them lies a set of conclusions that are likewise supported by (1) the four case studies carried out in this period, 1 (2) five studies of sub-Saharan African countries carried out in another CSIS project,2 (3) a series of meetings with experts to grapple with the issues of what was general and what was particular in those studies, and (4) a review of the findings and an informal search for counterevidence, that is, for instances that appeared to cut across the tentative findings, carried out with the assistance of the all the regional [sic] study programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

These findings go to the questions of why the strategy being examined – U.S. use of economic means for noneconomic (i.e., security and political) purposes in the Third World – worked sometimes and sometimes did not. Specifically, the study looked at the relationship of the strategy and instruments of economic assistance to the pursuit of the noneconomic policy objectives of the United States (and some of its allies), especially national security, democratization, and international stability. What are the conditions, the goals, and the tactics most likely to lead to success or failure?

Despite the warning contained in the headlines, the participants in the study, scholars and officials alike, believed that there will instances in the future when U.S. policymakers are attracted to the use of economic aid for noneconomic purposes.

But if Washington decides anew to taste this dangerous fruit, the study suggests that the U.S. government should pursue this strategy in a way radically different from that which has become traditional. Even taking all this good guidance about conditions, goals, and tactics into account, the achieving of the intended consequences is not certain, and the arrival on the doorstep of serious unintended consequences almost inevitable.

The fundamental message is, to use the instance above: only invest in the building of a dam if you will be satisfied with the existence of the dam, that and nothing more, as a payoff on the investment. But if the warning is not heeded, and Washington decides to build the dam in order to accomplish some further political and security objectives, the cases studied provide critical lessons for those making and implementing the program. The one case where a long-term objective was stated early and then apparently achieved was the goal of Korean self-sufficiency as it related to the subsequent “economic miracle” and the approach to (but not full achievement of) security self-sufficiency.

The question of cause-and-effect is treated in the Korea case study itself. But even in this case, the first lesson advanced by the author of the study is that “economic aid is a blunt, not subtle, too.” Further, in Korea certain slices of aid were targeted toward the goal of economic self-sufficiency with enough directness to make this the immediate goal (thereby also demonstrating that the immediacy of the goal and whether it is long-term or short-term are two different issues). Another key long-term goal in Korea was the fostering of democracy. But it was never the direct, immediate objective of any slice of the aid. The result was that, despite the size of the aid program, authoritarian government continued in Korea.



The findings also lead to the following conclusions:

  • Even on a purely economic level, we should not expect economic aid to be more than a catalyst. This is even more true where the goal is political change. The real energy and commitment to improve economic performance must come from the host-country leadership, local constituencies, and private investment. The role of aid, at best, can be to induce the receiving government to put its economic house in order and to foster an environment in which private enterprise can flourish. Even in the five sub-Saharan African countries studied, where aid donors succeeded in providing some impetus for economic reform, the driving force for political change came from inside the countries. (This lesson is all the more important in view of the modest size of the U.S. aid program in relation to the total resources needed by Third World economies.) The relationship here between the economic and noneconomic is fairly crude: the unleashing of market forces leads to the creation of a liberal cosmopolitan middle class, which has proved to be dynamite for authoritarianism.

  • The case studies do not indicate the impossibility of achieving some limited political or security objectives with aid from Washington. But where the desired political result is something more precise than that of the blunt relationship just described, the studies show that if the main purpose is political, it is a mistake to devise elaborate economic objectives, pretending that these are the main purpose of the aid.

  • Many of the “new” noneconomic goals that may become part of the objectives of foreign assistance programs are, by nature, long-term. Although this is not the same as having goals that are secondary or part of a complex package of objectives, the long-term character of these goals will create problems of (1) measurement of effectiveness and (2) maintenance of the pressure for recipient-country performance. Nevertheless, aid will usually be long-term (Korean model), with occasional short-term instances (some Philippine examples). The critical finding of the study is that where long- and short-term objectives occur together, the overall problem of multiple goals (below) is much exacerbated. The tension between long-term goals (economic self-sufficiency, democracy, social reform) and short-term cold war goals in Pakistan become a serious drawback. (In the case of Pakistan, the case study author came to the conclusion that smaller amounts of economic assistance over a longer-period, with a predictable disbursement pattern, would do more good than sudden infusions of larger sums.)

  • On the question of cooperation with other donor countries, the study finds advantages in the effectiveness of the political statement the aid makes and advantages in leverage if the aid flow is regulated by an international agency with a reputation for toughness in relating recipient-country performance to spigot-control. An informal consortium or mere parallel individual-country giving tend to diminish leverage, for reasons discussed in the last chapter. The United States is capable of improving the probability of effectiveness of any multiple-donor initiative by taking the lead in organizing for the policy objectives among all the aid donors and urging each to make its own aid conditional upon appropriate behavior by the recipient.

  • Although the cases studies focused on the attempt to accomplish noneconomic ends through all the means of economic assistance, the backlash of the initiatives studied became an important part of the story in all cases. There is a consistent pattern of jeopardizing the achievement of the principal stated economic goals by the presence of other, non economic goals. The Philippine case study finds that the priority given to noneconomic objectives distorted and damaged the economic program and prevent support for some sectors of the program. (The author predicts that if aid to the Philippines continues to be linked, or even to be perceived to be linked, to noneconomic objectives, U.S. trade and investment will lose ground to donors not making the same mistake.) The history of the U.S.-Pakistan aid relationship is also one of the economic value of aid being limited because of noneconomic objectives. This consistent finding explains the antagonism of much of the aid community toward program objectives that damage “their” priorities. But the point is crucial because of the importance that economic performance is likely to have among aid objectives of the future.

So a striking conclusion of the research is not just the difficulty and unlikelihood of achieving secondary and tertiary objectives, objectives not immediate to the exact aid given, but the strongly deleterious effect of these “other” objectives on the accomplishing of the economic objectives (including those of commercial consequence). Powerfully dramatized by Ernest Preeg’s study, this factor is present in all the cases.

An interesting phenomenon found in the studies is that of reverse damage, the instances in which economic reform and progress work counter to such political objectives as stability. The Mexican case suggests that this is mainly a short-term phenomenon.



  • The factors of damage to the accomplishment of economic objectives, and short-term reverse damage, are really just sub-sets of a larger, very consistent, finding in the case studies, the additional African cases, and the review by CSIS regional study programs: the presence of multiple objectives of any kind for the same program of economic assistance sharply reduces the chances of achieving all but the most immediate primary goal, and will inflict at least some damage on that primary effort also. The Mexican study suggests that Washington had not thought out systematically the relationship between its economic strategy and the achievement of its noneconomic objective. In Korea, U.S. officials are found expressing confusion about which group of goals had priority. In the Philippines, the multiple objectives that got in each other’s way were even on the same side of “the line” (between the economic and the noneconomic): the linkage to base rights adversely affected political objectives. At times when Washington’s strategic interest in Pakistan has been at one of its high points, the United States has failed to use economic assistance effectively to achieve other goals. Gen. Grave’s judgment on the basis of the five African studies is that “donors intent on supporting both a transition to democratic government and economic policy reform will face the dilemma of whether to give priority to the political survival of the fledgling government or to economic change. In aid programs political and economic objectives have often been … in conflict.”3

  • The leverage-spigot relationship is summarized in a special section above. Put simply, leverage to affect the reforms, policies, and other behavior of the receiving country is directly tied to the credibility of the donor’s ability and willingness (legal, administrative, and political) to regulate the flow of aid in response to recipient performance. This factor operates with special intensity and complexity in the case of an economic assistance program with multiple goals, and phenomenon treated in the next point.

In Korea, the leverage over recipient policies was minimized during the Syngman Rhee period because withholding aid would have jeopardized objectives that were perceived (correctly) by Koreans as having an extremely high priority in Washington. Specifically, Seoul knew that the primary U.S. goal was to advance its own position in the cold war in the short run, and so Korean leaders reasoned that the goal of democratization was postponable without any (believable) risk that Washington would react at the spigot. Over the course of about 40 years of U.S. grant assistance there was no enduring progress toward a real democracy, despite all the U.S. efforts. If U.S. assistance helped promote some of the economic conditions that in turn produced the social conditions that in turn produced the political conditions for the recent movement toward democratization, that outcome is very different from any serious Korean response to the paper tiger of U.S. pressure during the earlier period. Democratization is occurring now, when Korea’s dependence on U.S. aid has ended. (The point on the predispositions of the recipient country’s ruling factions, also explored in this section of the report, was also in play in our inability to force or induce political reforms.)

The credibility of the hand on the spigot can also be weakened by confusion over the level of aid or the factors that will affect it, as is seen in the Philippine case. And in this case, so long as Manila thought that the Americans simply had to retain the military bases, they could ignore any threats about delay or suspension of assistance on this or other topics. The aid could be disbursed as political patronage, ignoring the objective of democratic reform. These relationships were so clear that Communists could portray the United States as being under the thumb of Marcos’s leverage. The intention of Washington policymakers and legislators that U.S. support would lead to both economic and political reform was frustrated because the leverage was missing. The single noneconomic objective (the bases) damaged everything else. Even with the change of regime, the aid given to show political support for Corazon Aquino had so little perceived relation to either Philippine needs or performance that it carried no leverage for economic reform and functioned only as a crude one-time statement of political support, unrelated to genuine leverage to influence future events.



In Pakistan, everything that enhanced the perceived importance of Pakistan in Washington’s regional security strategy reduced spigot-credibility and leverage. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan destroyed the remaining shreds of credibility for the idea that Washington would actually suspend or delay the aid flow in response to Pakistani performance on other aid objectives. Note that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was followed by a freeze on aid; the Pakistani calculation had been correct. The period when all goals other than Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan was secondary had ended.

  • The factor of multiple goals is, in some of the cases, linked to that of spigot-control to create the worst possible situation for exerting leverage on the recipient. If one or some of the goals of a multiple-goal program are seen as vitally important to the United States, leverage is destroyed relative to all other goals; if it is not credible that the United States will turn off the spigot because it attaches so much importance to X, the recipient has no reason to heed Washington’s demands on any other objectives.

  • All cases and associated research underscore the importance of the relationship between the donor’s objectives and those of the recipient country. This rather obvious point is given its proper complications by the cases: when speaking of “the recipient country” what really counts is the ruling group’s perception of those interests. Within this, the cases point to the ruling group’s perceptions of its own, not the country’s, interests, and other the development of counter-constituencies for the aid if it, or the conditions it would promote, are seen as a threat to any of the significant competitors in the internal struggle for power. Although taking these predispositions into account would seem to be a prudent calculation that all policymakers would undertake, the cases reveal that Washington has frequently missed this step, or had the political ground shift under its feet (in ways that should not, however, have caused surprise). What should not be ignored in the future is the need to design aid programs to provide results that will be advantageous (and be perceived to be advantageous) to both Washington and the recipient, recognizing that “the recipient” might mean several factions powerful enough to control the success or failure of the aid.

Account must be taken of other donors of economic assistance. This means more than the logical relationships among the programs, their ends, and their procedures. It means also understanding and planning strategy around the constituencies that are affected by, even developed by, the aid programs of other donors. The tangled history of the interplay of multiple donors in the same recipient country would afford interesting analysis but probably few generalizations to guide policy-makers on subsequent occasions, beyond the admonition that, in most cases, the United States is not alone.

In general the case the studies illustrate that where the interests of the recipient country and the noneconomic goals of the United States coincided, such use of U.S. economic aid successfully accomplished its purpose. Both the donor and recipient benefited. When, however, the U.S. goal conflicted with the interests of the administration of the recipient country or threatened the existence of that group, U.S. economic aid failed to accomplish its foreign policy purpose. Especially was this true if the national security objective of the United States in the recipient country was known to be of high priority to the United States. In the case of Korea, U.S. economic aid was a source of patronage that helped to keep Syngman Rhee in power; it was therefore important to him. The same was true of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. In each country the granting of human rights and ending oppression would have threatened the existence of the strongman; no progress was made by the United States toward the goal of democracy and in fact the United States did not rigorously. In each country, moreover, U.S. threats to withdraw aid were not credible; the recipient knew that the prime U.S. goal was advancing its own position in the cold war in the short run and that democratization as a goal was postponable.4 In fact, bargaining power lay with the recipient, not with the aid donor. In contrast to Syngman Rhee, who had no real interest in the economy of his country or in development aid per se, Park Chung Hee decided early in his tenure that “long-term U.S. sponsorship was no longer guaranteed.”5 He rejected the “calculated dependence of the Rhee years,” and sought greater economic and military independence from the United States. In other words, U.S. and Korean goals as donor and recipient coincided. The consequence was an improvement in bilateral relations and, within a decade, the end of U.S. economic aid and the start of the Korean economic miracle. The long-term U.S. goals of putting Korea into a position of being able to maintain a strong defense force and operate and an acceptable level of living without U.S. aid were accomplished; democratization, however, was still a hope for the future.

The case studies are replete with instance where the predisposition of politically powerful factions, including the country’s ruling group, were pivotal and, when push came to shove, were not shoved out of the way by the will of the donor. Moving to a market economy in Mexico interfered with the subsidies received by favored constituencies. Many of the new governments in sub-Saharan Africa owe their rise to power to constituencies that benefit from the status quo and would be damaged by economic reform. Failure to achieve human rights goals in Korea stemmed from the threat this constituted to Syngman Rhee, as did any moves toward democracy, another goal imposed on the aid program. In Mexico, the overall threat affecting Mexican predispositions came from the idea that an economy based on individual initiative might undermine the authoritarian civic culture. The Philippine government went all the way in defending the difference between its and Washington’s goals when it demanded rent-labeled-as-rent for the military bases, freeing it to use the money for its own purposes.

On occasion, mixing into internal politics has been an important (though seldom advertised) part of U.S. objectives, well beyond such simple formulations as the promotion of democratization. One reason for Washington’s interest in the establishment of a functioning market economy in Mexico is the hope that this would discredit the policy descriptions of the Mexican Left. In fact, the Mexican case study shows that the measure of consensus achieved on economic policy has moderated the extreme Left and also undermined the scare tactics of the far Right. In such cases, the relationship between the aid and internal political factions was deliberate.



  • The study does not provide decisive support for the idea of rewriting the Foreign Assistance Act. One could undertake to write new legislation in order to limit strictly the purposes for which aid may be provided – and do so reading the lessons of this study – but the legislative chances for a major revision are unclear, and once started down that road in the Congress, the finishing point is unpredictable. Among participants in the study were admirers of the Hamilton-Gilman report but also those with strong questions about the wisdom of trying to dictate all the purposes of aid in a piece of general legislation.

  • Because of the slices of history studied, the noneconomic objectives were mostly cold war-related security and political goals. But neither the case studies nor the experts involved in the study suggest that the lessons learned are confined to those particular noneconomic objectives. The same mistakes could be made in efforts with other noneconomic ends in view, from narcotics control to environmental protection.

  • The Korean case study makes an interesting case for striving for public, rather than government, support for aid objectives. Because this was the only study to focus on public diplomacy as a factor in the strategic thinking relative to economic assistance, the discussion in that case study cannot properly be called a finding or recommendation of the project as a whole. But it is suggestive of paths to follow in subsequent work.

In the final section an attempt is made to put together the principal characteristic of a foreign assistance program with the best odds for success, according to the study’s findings. The central conclusion is that the best odds obtain when the objective is economic; closely related to (or exactly the same as) the specific work to be carried out by the aid project; short-term; genuinely supported by the political leadership of the recipient country; not burdened with secondary objectives; and disbursed, delayed or suspended according to a credible and tight connection to the donor’s insistence on clear performance standards, whether the donor is the United States alone, the United States and its allies, or an international agency. […]

The Historical Moment

It was decisively important for the political significance of this study that it was launched as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire unraveled. The end of the cold war means a necessary rethinking of the political engine behind much of U.S. foreign economic assistance over the last 40 years. The study, even if the timing was more fortuitous than calculated, offers itself as the logical starting place for that rethinking.

With the shadow of the superpower rivalry removed, we can see more clearly those other dangers and opportunities for which aid might be an effective instrument – if the lessons of recent history are understood and heeded. Global and regional stability are now threatened by poverty, the maldistribution of resources, disease, the narcotics trade, ethnic strife, the abuse of human rights, mass migration, nuclear proliferation and the spread of other weapons of mass destruction and, long range, environmental degradation. This array of threats will constitute a drain on, perhaps the exhaustion of, the resources and vitality of the international system. The resources that were thrown, often on the basis of guesswork and wishful thinking, at cold war objectives will not be available to the United States and its allies in the future.

And there are also the unrealized opportunities. Despite the political earthquake of the last three years, neither market-based free enterprise nor Western-style pluralistic government has been installed as the worldwide pattern.

The historical context is one that demands a far more stringent relationship between reality and goals, and then between goals and investment, than that to which cold war policy makers were accustomed.

During the cold war, the United States used economic and security assistance as major policy instruments in its rivalry with the Soviet Union. Three of the four case studies reported on below describe situations dominated by cold war concerns; and the citation above from Dr. Baer’s study of Mexico dramatizes the high importance of cold war factors even in that case. The cases show, as does the history we all know, that various combinations of such assistance made a major contribution to the success of the Western alliance and the maintenance of the U.S. position in several corners of the earth.

In many cases economic assistance was used in pursuit of noneconomic objectives, bolstered either by apparently tight reasoning or by obvious wishful thinking in the connection asserted between the aid and its goals. It has been, and remains, a controversial concept.

But it is one that will continue to offer itself to policymakers. Wherever we have relative wealth and no easy direct path to achieving desired political and security goals, the idea that maybe an investment of this kind will pay off is going to spring to mind. If it does not, the potential recipient countries will find ways to suggest it. The response, if it is to be more than guesswork (and a fresh supply of wishful thinking), must be based on analysis of what works, what does not, and under what conditions.

The case studies and their context in history show how often Washington turned to economic aid as a cold war weapon. Foreign aid is still considered to be a useful foreign policy tool by official Washington, even with the end of the cold war. But in all the ferment of new ideas being offered for revising the goals of the aid programs, few in either the executive or legislative branches have suggested using economic aid solely for purposes of improving the economic conditions and performance in receiving countries. That is the stark context of this study.

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