WRITTEN EVIDENCE SUBMITTED
TO THE INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE INQUIRY ON
THE PHILOSOPHY AND CULTURE OF AID
This submission has been prepared by Dr. Nilima Gulrajani, Senior Research Fellow (on leave) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). This is a personal submission and does not in any way reflect the official views or positions of ODI.
- This note offers a historically informed discussion of why countries give foreign aid and the cultural values within which the aid regime sits. It is largely written with a focus on Northern bilateral donors.
- Donor states express a mixture of motives in their aid-giving that sit along a continuum between altruism and self-interest. Narrow self-interest is a strong underlying rationale for aid provision today. Nevertheless, such self-interest has always been present in the history of aid. No country would give aid if it was antithetical to their self-interests.
- The IDC should continue to underline the positive-sum relationship between solidarity and self-interest in foreign aid activities and beyond-aid activities, arguing for allocations and decisions that advanced a principled approach to the UK national interest even as development and diplomacy spheres are drawn closer.
- The cultural values of aid are largely rooted in modernisation theory which presumes a linear trajectory from under-developed to developed nation premised on the advanced status of Western models and experiences. This narrative is seriously challenged in a multi-polar world, where Southern states are active providers of development cooperation in their own right.
- The IDC should consider how to turn this narrative on its head by espousing the values of universality and justice more centrally in donor activities and agendas. This can be done by actively linking domestic development challenges to their global counterparts, recognising shared global challenges like intra-country inequality, exclusion and marginalisation. It can also be done by underlining the rationale for aid as a conduit for justice, as distinct from disempowering charitable tropes.
WHY GIVE AID? UNDERSTANDING DONOR MOTIVES
- Point Four of US President Truman's 1949 inaugural address invited all nations to come together to join a 'worldwide effort for the achievement of peace, plenty, and freedom' targeting 'underdeveloped areas' with economic and technical assistance. Truman's 'bold new programme' marked the problematization of poverty in the South, as well as the invention of global development as an institutional arena governed by states. This state-based framework contours both the rationale for aid's provision even today, as well as aid's design and methods of delivery.
- Development as a sphere of activity began as a strategic imperative to offset perceived Communist threats and compensate for colonial retreat. Nevertheless, a strong moral intent and flavour also motivated the genesis of development as an arena for state relations, including a desire to extend the principles of humanitarianism and internationalism beyond national borders, and to assume greater Northern responsibility towards the South. Indeed, for non-imperial middle powers like Canada and the Nordics, development has largely been framed from the beginning as an ethical vocation, albeit one with the prospects for improved diplomatic relations with the South.
- The development endeavour has, from its inception to the present, been built on rationales that combine varying levels of altruism and selfishness. And yet, it must be recognised that no country would give aid if it was antithetical to their own self-interests. The relative proportions of donor solidarity and self-interest can and does shift over time, geographies and circumstance. Moreover, in an interdependent world, these motives can also pull in the same direction as strategic interests relating to global security and prosperity are indirectly served by tangibly achieving progress on development goals. This involves making a distinction between aid that services a principled national interest from more parochial, self-serving approaches.
- ODI's Principled Aid (PA) Index highlights donors are tilting towards greater parochialism, as revealed by their recent foreign aid allocations. The data shows worsening scores even among donors at the top of the rankings, driven largely by diminished public spiritedness as aid is allocated in ways that may secure direct short-term commercial and geo-strategic advantages. The UK has achieved an overall rank on the Index that has not exceeded 7th place in any of the last five years, and in 2020 (calculated using 2018 data) it ranked in 10th place.
- Mixed motives will always characterise the global aid endeavour. Some degree of parochialism can always be expected given the extensive fiduciary and political obligations that donors must maintain towards their domestic publics. At the same time, there remain strong reasons for designing legislative or regulatory safeguards to minimize the likelihood that donors overwhelm the global development project with narrow-minded nationalism. This may allow donors to better respond to demands for greater voice and autonomy among local actors and communities closest to the problems being tackled. The UK should now strive towards principled expressions of nationalism not just in their aid, but in their overall integrated development diplomacy offer. Donor interest will be served if the long-term, indirect benefits from a progressive development policy can be tangibly identified and captured.
WHAT IS THE CULTURE OF AID? RE-CONSIDERING DONOR VALUES
- The model for donor economic and technical assistance is premised on theories of state modernisation dating from the 1950s and 1960s, where transitions from traditional to mass-consumption societies were expected to occur through a 'take-off' initiated by capital accumulation. Described as "an approach to development in which a group of experts sitting in their government offices would call forth the machinery of industrialisation and urbanisation to remake social relations on the ground," Walt Rostow's modelling is premised on emulation of Northern countries' trajectories towards a developed modernity and rationality that was assumed to be lacking in the South. This model also provided the foundation for economic calculations estimating the levels of foreign capital required by low-income countries to achieve 'take-off'. The end result was the globally recognised (it not widely accepted) 0.7 Official Development Assistance (ODA) financial target built upon on a model of development that assumed Northern supremacy and reflected a degree of hubris and paternalism towards the South.
- Since inception, ODA provision is associated as a core responsibility of 'developed' states. Assisting countries in their transition to prosperity would ultimately allow providers to join this select club of donor nations. Full membership in the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC) "confirms a country’s commitment to promoting international development" and signals " a state’s advanced economic and political strength". Aspiring donors are also told, "Joining the DAC brings with it many advantages. It gives providers of development co-operation an opportunity to: enhance their international credibility and broaden their influence." The impression cultivated is that status as an aid provider signals a capacity for charitable giving that confers the state with symbolic power as a mature economy. This, in turn, may incentivize the proliferation of Southern development providers seeking greater legitimacy in their foreign relations.
- Linear trajectories of state modernisation are compromised in a multi-polar world, where intra-country inequalities have created pockets of under-development in all countries, and where dispersed economic and political power implies far less divergence between the North and South than we might have otherwise expect. The dual status of many lower-income states as both providers and recipients of development cooperation provides a direct challenge to sharp divisions between a 'developed' donor and a 'developing' recipient.
- With developed-developing binaries increasingly discredited, identifying the new cultural values Northern aid donors are embracing is both a statement of purpose and commitment. Aid can no longer be framed as activities undertaken to a designated (and shrinking) list of countries by a more select, superior set of nations. A clear articulation of British values in a new development strategy can help by outlining continuities and distinctiveness with the diplomatic values articulated in the recently concluded Integrated Review. This can also inform how UK development cooperation might relate to strongly articulated Southern cooperation values like solidarity, reciprocity and non-interference.
- At the same time, the Committee may want to consider how to embrace universality as a value within UK aid. Universality is already implicit in the application of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework to all countries. It is also present in understandings of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' that now inform a range of global treaties governing collective public good provision, including the 2015 Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Embracing universality requires reducing gaps between international and domestic development agendas and is well-suited to tackling shared global challenges. Given the zeitgeist now demands aid's decolonisation and its re-imagination within a post-COVID world, it may also welcome addressing the common challenges of intra-country inequality, exclusion and marginalisation. Universal values in development are attainable so long as the unique baseline conditions within states can be accepted.
- We know that framing aid as charitable gift-giving risks the creation of power differentials and hierarchical sentiments within donor-recipient relations. Nevertheless, given the strong support for moral motivations for aid among a relatively significant proportion of the UK public, displacing charitable tropes might be best achieved by replacing them with a suitable alternative ethical framing. One promising alternative value the Committee might consider is justice, which has been associated with development by "removing unfreedoms and of extending the substantive freedoms of different types that people have reason to value". Placing justice at the heart of development might involve stronger efforts to advance political and legal rights, economic entitlements, equality of opportunity and fair distribution. Universality and justice both seem to deserve a firmer footing in the cultural reconfiguration of Northern foreign aid.
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 In 2021, a fifth (20%) of Britons argue that we hold a ‘moral duty’ to help the world’s poorest people. See Gaston, S., Aspinall, E., & Cargill, T. (2021). UK Public Opinion on Foreign Policy and Global Affairs Annual Survey – 2021. British Foreign Policy Group.
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