The dog with two bones

Ian Birrell of the Independent asks a question that’s worth a ponder: why do the British give money to repressive countries?

Why, he asks, is Britain handing out so much aid to [Rwanda] when its ruler is fighting a proxy war in the Congo; when its elites are getting rich on stolen minerals; when democracy is a sham and dissent is stifled?

And aid flows into Uganda, where Yoweri Museveni’s regime has been accused of torture and repression. Britain increased total aid to Ethiopia even after Meles Zenawi, another poster boy for this supposed new wave of African leaders, oversaw a brutal clampdown following a blatantly rigged election and waged war on Somalia. A strange paradox seems to be emerging: the more money spent on aid, the less chance of criticism.

Birrell also highlight’s DFID’s growing power in Anglo-African relations:

The most outrageous example was in Kenya, where Dfid officials tried to prevent the British ambassador from speaking out against obscene corruption. Only last week I heard of a senior minister who, told he was signing agreements with one of Kenya’s most corrupt politicians, glibly replied that he was less interested in the man’s record than the desire to get children into education. Little wonder Kenya remains plagued by corruption.

The problem is that out of the many reasons we give aid, the only two that are (arguably) unselfish often conflict with each other:

  1. giving aid to hammer away at poverty and inspire economic growth and
  2. giving aid to incentivise governments to stay free, accountable and democratic.

Does our pursuit of poverty reduction collide with our preference for a free and democratic world (the titular two bones)? We’d like our decisions to be clear-cut: When governments are both repressive and bad at governing (or free and follow good policies) the decision is pretty easy.

However, when we’re dealing with countries that are relatively free but still have incompetent governments or those that are repressive yet follow good development/economic policies, our decisions will be marked with flecks of grey.

Sometimes I feel like I’m closer to the “give effective aid even if it gives you icky feelings” camp. Effective governments are arguably more important than free ones – Robert Mugabe’s economic policies did far more damage to Zimbabwe than his brutal methods of staying in power.

On the other hand, it does feel particularly icky to look the other way when successful governments begin to look more authoritarian, as they have in Uganda, Rwanda (and as donors in Malawi often did while I was there).

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “The dog with two bones

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    September 19, 2009 at 9:53am

    I’m a total pragmatist on this one. Most countries at the time of development have been obscenely corrupt. America was, the UK was, South Korea was, China was and is.

    So, if such countries are corrupt and powering development rapidly, do we harm the material circumstances of those living in poverty so ‘we don’t feel icky’? That’s the worst kind of aid, giving so we feel better.

    Mushtaq Khan has argued, extremely persuasively, that it’s not the corruption per se we should focus on, but the form of corruption and underlying relationships that help or harm development. In some cases, corruption may make little difference to development; in others it may be part of a system of relationships that impair the possibility of developing. Working out what type you’re looking at should be the first step.

    Which isn’t to say corruption is ok; it’s clearly not. If we can do everything without it, perfect. But if a country is hauling its population out of poverty with rapidity and quickly developing a viable economy, you’d better be 100% certain your intervention will work without harm, or you have serious questions about your motivation to answer. Most people would take ‘corruption with rapid growth’ over ‘no corruption and low growth’. The only time to intervene in the first case is when we’re sure we can enforce ‘no corruption and rapid growth’. Which clearly isn’t as easy as it sounds, or more countries would have achieved it. As it is, I can’t think of a single country that did.

    You know, I might repost my old ramble on this from my last blog (plus the long discussion we had in the comments).

  2. Matt

    September 20, 2009 at 6:57pm

    Sure Ranil – I agree about corruption, but I was talking mainly about political freedom, not corruption.

  3. Sam Gardner

    September 20, 2009 at 11:21pm

    The problem is not giving aid, but supporting governments instead of the poor.

    Budget aid should only be given to clean, accountable governments, not involved in military campaigns. Otherwise its effects are like a diamond deposit.

    However, budget aid became a cure-all. The first countries to receive this kind of aid were Rwanda, Uganda and Mozambique, go figure. While budget aid is good to keep a regime in power (so diminishing accountability), the superiority of this modality compared to project aid to deliver development and accountability still has to be proven.

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