International aid compulsions

By Syed Mohammad Ali

Why rich countries give aid to the developing world is a contested topic, concerning which it is not hard to find an extreme divergence of opinion. On one side, aid is considered no more than a ‘carrot’ dangled by powerful countries to entice the developing world to do their bidding. On the other hand, rich countries are blamed for squandering taxes collected from their own citizens, which is wasted by corrupt leaders in poorer countries, without doing much to alleviate the evident suffering of the hapless masses. The international aid machinery has witnessed undisputed growth since WWII, with the creation of the UN system, the IMF and the World Bank, bilateral or regional aid organisations, and the plethora of NGOs. Yet, there is no growing consensus about the purpose or rationale of international aid.

Richard Humes, an academic based in the UK, has written an interesting book, Should rich nations help the poor? which recognises that governments of rich countries use combinations of altruism and self-interest to justify providing aid to poor people in other parts of the world.

On the one hand, there are several arguments for aid provision which are based on a moral imperative. The rhetoric of aid often refers to lofty values such as the pursuit of ensuring social justice, which motivates powerful countries to assist those less fortunate. Another line of argument also employing a moral imperative is more reflexive, since it argues that rich nations support poorer ones because rich countries are responsible for the economic and political structures that have made other countries poor. Such exploitative structures include not only historical injustices under colonialism, but also the contemporary structures of capitalism and globalisation, including unfair trade policies. In recent years, another strand of such moral argument highlights the havoc being caused by climate change brought about by economically advanced countries, which is now threatening livelihoods in poor countries around the world.

Another kind of argument for rich nations helping the poor is based on a mixture of self-interest as well as altruism. Such arguments maintain that richer countries should assist poorer ones, since doing so is not only the right thing to do, but is in their own interest. For instance, without helping create effective healthcare systems, the likelihood of diseases, such as Ebola, becoming major global pandemics is much higher. Similarly, the flow of Sudanese, Syrians, or Afghans pouring into Europe cannot be curbed unless greater efforts are made to ensure economic growth in their home countries. There is also evidence to show that global poverty must be curbed to bring down fertility rates in poorer countries. Another important argument is the fear that unless poorer countries offer better prospects for to their citizenry, more people will be driven towards violence, which spills over across international borders in the form of the drug menace or terrorism. There is even an economic rationale for helping poor nations increase their incomes, which could spur international consumption and economic growth.

Then, on the flip side of these moral and/or self-interest based imperatives is the perception that it is instead a cold-hearted calculus of short-term political and commercial advantages which is the real driving force for international aid. We, in Pakistan, need not look far for evidence for how aid was correlated to a proxy war in Afghanistan, and thereafter to siding with the West in the ongoing ‘war against terror’. Alongside foreign policy considerations are also major commercial interests, whereby rich countries often ‘tie’ their aid to allocation of lucrative contracts for their businesses or even NGOs.

It is just as hard to refute any of the above imperatives, as it is to maintain that only one of them is the real reason why rich countries allocate billions of dollars in aid to the developing world. We live in a complex world, in which there are no simple answers to complicated questions, and why rich countries give money to poorer ones, is hardly a simple question.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 14th, 2016.

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