IN the last year from which statistics are available, the United States, arguably the only superpower left in the world, spent $300 billion in foreign aid. Most of the aid went to the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. It funded everything from food aid (the UN’s World Food Programme was one of the biggest humanitarian organisations to which the aid was disbursed) to operas in Peru and education for commercial sex workers in Ethiopia. Every dollar in US aid was paid for by American taxpayers, who seem increasingly impatient and unhappy about the dollars that are being spent in their name.
Some of that frustration has come with the Afghanistan debacle. As many regional experts predicted 20 years ago, the US effort to transform Afghanistan with foreign aid has been a resounding failure. As had been the case in Iraq, the hundreds of millions thrown at NGOs, projects, workshops and schools simply did not do what they were intended to do.
Because the US was trying to show what a great idea liberal democracy was for anyone at all, it focused on funding projects that would look good to those who already lived in liberal democracies. Filmmaking programmes, new television and radio channels, seminars at hotels on everything from women’s rights to legal transformation, all fulfilled the criteria that it had in mind. The fact that these projects were all donor-driven geared them towards making America’s nation-building plans look good, at least on paper. Whether or not they would actually result in any long-lasting changes seemed at best an afterthought to the aid givers.
It could be argued that the money that has been a part of foreign aid, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but all over the world, was never intended to actually bring about any real or long-lasting changes. It was simply to give the United States leverage over the corrupt governments of most of the countries that were receiving the aid being disbursed. The road to becoming a superpower, it appears, is lined with a lot of aid money, to leverage any part of the world.
It could be argued that the money that has been a part of foreign aid all over the world was never intended to actually bring about real change.
The fact that aid is for the giver and not the taker is proven in the methods that have been used for its disbursal. As the economist Chris Blattman pointed out some years ago, one of the best things that can be done to help lift communities out of poverty in the long run is not to build a school or a well or a latrine. The best thing that can be done to break that cycle of poverty is to give the community members actual cash. His study found that individuals (rather than aid agencies) had the best outcomes in deciding how the money was best utilised.
The finding reveals another potential reason why rich countries choose to disburse aid. The reason why aid agencies and donor governments try to keep control over the money and the projects is also because it places them in a superior moral and intellectual position than the aid recipients. The moral bit applies to the belief that if the aid was given in cash to the poor farmer, that farmer would simply waste the money instead of spending it on something that would make his own and his family’s and community’s life better.
In terms of intellectual condescension, the belief is that the poor are stupid and that they could not possibly know what they need or what would be of real use to their community or family. The wider consequences of this are that rich countries continue to be thought of as global thought leaders and also as altruistic and selfless in many places. The fact that they give so much aid to the poor can thus amplify their position in the world.
Not all approaches to developing a profile as a global superpower are built on this logic, however. In recent years (as Pakistanis know), the Chinese have also begun to develop a presence in various parts of the world. The case is never built on altruism or the simple act of giving away money to those who need it. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, for instance, makes no secret of the fact that it would serve China’s interests. Instead of giving the money to the many governments involved in the BRI, the Chinese have created schemes of structured debts whereas the projects are expected to attract their own revenue. At that point, the recipient government is to pay back the money that it has received from the Chinese.
While this may be a novel approach it is not one that is guaranteed to avert tragedy. As we know, aid projects don’t always work, especially when they are being implemented on a very large scale, and so it may be the case with the Chinese plan. If a particular Chinese-funded project ends up not being profitable or being profitable only to the point when the aid can be repaid, recipient governments will find themselves to be not only poor but also severely indebted. In this situation, the trade benefits that everyone hoped would accrue may never actually materialise.
So aid as benevolence — as an image-burnishing exercise — or aid as a means to get poor countries to build things, has few guarantees. The guaranteed winners are the donor countries; their fingers dug deep into the homes of the poor, they can be the world’s puppeteers, the noblest, smartest and most helpful of the lot. All of it points to the truth that neither enormous infrastructure projects nor thousands of school buildings are likely to lift the truly vulnerable out of poverty, to deliver the ‘better lives’ that donor governments promise and that the recipients endlessly, tragically continue to hope for.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.