Unit 4: International influences on national politics and development

In this blog entry I will turn my focus away from the role of the state in development politics to look at the impact of international actors on the development politics of developing countries. I will make particular reference to the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and, as in my previous posts, India.

The politics of aid allocation. Which countries receive aid and why?

Firstly, it is important to remind ourselves about the relationship between politics and development. As I set out in my first blog entry development is fundamentally political, and international aid, as a tool that donors use to drive development also carries with it political baggage. The end of the Cold War and the removal of the inter-Superpower rivalry that dominated global politics brought about a “sense of optimism about the potential for [international] aid to focus on countries most in need, irrespective of the political leanings of the recipient regime.” (Beall et al, 2006:4). But ultimately, when a country is making decisions about how to allocate its foreign aid budget, how it makes those decisions is likely to be shaped by political factors. Indeed, in recent years, policy rhetoric emerging from Western governments has sought to link the internal security of developing countries with their own domestic security concerns (Cameron, 2010, Clinton, 2010). As Morgenthau wrote in 1962, “foreign aid is an instrument of foreign policy” (Morgenthau, 1962:1) and donors recognise that aid offers a means of achieving foreign policy goals.

An analysis of where UK aid money goes could be used to suggest that UK development policy is not driven by political factors (a useful summary of UK aid allocation is available here). This may seem a bold statement, but let’s dwell on the facts for a moment. Since 1990, the two countries that have received the most money in the form of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) flows from the UK are India and Nigeria (OECD, 2013). While it might be argued that the UK has a strategic interest in supporting Asia’s largest democracy and the most populous country in Africa, one might equally argue that DFID’s presence is driven by the high numbers of poor people living in the countries. While it is undeniable that countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen have also received significant flows of UK ODA in recent years, other countries that regularly feature in the top-ten list of UK ODA recipients include Ethiopia, Tanzania, Bangladesh and Nepal, all of whom, it could be argued, are on that list not for political reasons but because they are relatively poor (ibid.). Furthermore, the International Development Act, signed into law in 2002, specifically requires British governments to use aid money only for the purposes of reducing poverty (UK Parliament, 2002). While this does not preclude aid money from being channelled to countries in which the UK has a strategic interest, the ODI has praised DFID for creating ‘firewalls’ such as this to restrict the ways in which UK aid money can be spent (ODI: 2012).

Aid to India

I will now turn to a case study of the UK’s aid partnership with India to look in more detail at the reasons countries give international aid. On 9th November 2012 UK Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, announced the end of financial grant aid to India from 2015. The announcement came after months of speculation about the future of DFID’s bilateral aid programme. The debate about whether or not the UK should give aid to India reflected the wide variety of differing opinions on why countries give aid and what they hope to achieve by doing so.

On the one hand, DFID argues that it works in India because the country is home to a third of the world’s people living on less that $1.25 a day – more than live in all of sub-Saharan Africa – and that if the world is serious about achieving the Millennium Development Goals, progress needs to be made in the parts of India that have been left behind by its recent growth surge. Detractors point to India’s enormous army, its space programme and aid programme to question whether donor contributions are needed. My feeling is that such arguments are partly driven by a misunderstanding of what the UK’s aid actually involves – DFID would argue that its aid is targeted to the poorest people in the poorest states and that it is winding down support for the central government. Whatever the merits of giving aid to India, it is also arguable that there are multiple other reasons that the UK might want to give aid to India. It might be an attempt to gain favour with a country of growing international importance and significance, to support Indian democracy as a bulwark against other ‘unstable’ countries in the region, or an effort to influence the Government of India to buy British goods. When one pauses to assess an aid programme within the wider geopolitical context, it becomes easier to recognise that all of these reasons could be factors in the UK’s decision to give aid to India.

The debate in the tabloid and right-leaning parts of the British media centred around the question of what the UK gets from India in return for its aid programme. While such publications had waged a long-term campaign against aid to India, the surge in debate about DFID’s programme in February 2012 was prompted by the announcement that a large Indian defence contract for fighter planes would be awarded to a French firm rather than a European consortium of which Britain is a member. Clearly for these parts of the press, the reason the UK gives aid to india is in its own self interest; that the UK gives aid in return for business contracts. The then UK Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, was reported as saying that giving aid to India was partly about winning defence contracts. It is arguable that this is an example of aid conditionality; we give you aid in return for contracts. In reality I can find no transcript of Mitchell actually saying such a thing, and what seems more likely is that he was – as suggested by Andrew Buncome of the Independent – making the point that the UK’s aid programme is a coherent part of the UK’s wider strategic relationship with India.

Commentators from the left also took this opportunity to attack the government’s position, as seen in this blog from Deborah Doane of the World Development Movement. In a woeful piece of journalism, Ms Doane presents an unattributed assertion in a Daily Mail article as a quote from Andrew Mitchell that UK aid to India is “partly about winning the bid”. Other commentators from the left have made the more thoughtful argument that the UK is driven by an ex-colonial mentality to India and that this might explain the maintenance of its aid programme. Perhaps reflecting such a mentality, the tabloids dredged up a comment from Indian President (then Finance Minister) Pranab Mukherjee made in the Indian Parliament in 2010 and used it to say that india was not grateful for UK aid. In reality, Mukherjee described UK aid to India as “a peanut in our total development expenditure” during a debate in the Indian Parliament in response to concerns that the potential withdrawal of UK aid could be damaging for India’s massive scoial sector schemes and was quoted out of context. This was fuel to the fire of tabloid rage about aid to India.

In general, I find it astonishing that the media is capable of conflating several issues into a single story to – misleadingly – present it as a a convincing and more compelling narrative. In this case the tabloid right have taken their preconceptions about international aid and have presented ‘facts’ in ways that conveniently fit their anti-aid agenda while the left have taken their pre-conceptions about the Coalition Government’s ambitions for the aid programme and melded the facts to suit their agenda.

My view is that while DFID’s aid programme in India is – and should be – a coherent part of the UK government’s wider strategy in India, the main reason for it existing is the scale of the remaining poverty challenge in India. If one takes a quick look at DFID’s Bilateral Aid Review, which assessed DFID’s partner countries in terms of what results could be achieved through development programmes, India comes out on top of the list, and this, so DFID argue, is the key reason why the UK decided to maintain aid to India at 2010 levels up to 2015. This would imply that poverty – not business, defence or neo-colonial attitudes – is the real motivation behind the UK giving aid to India. This is not say that broader strategic issues are not at play too. The British High Commission in Delhi attempts to reconcile that fact that it works with India on defence sales as well as development saying that inclusive growth and development is the number one domestic priority for the Government of India, and therefore the UK, as a good (strategically interested) global partner of India, has an interest in supporting Indian development. Having said this, the fact that Justine Greening announced a cut to aid to India only two years after the BAR and only several months after the controversy about the defence contract, does not look good. It makes it look like the two events are related. I am slightly depressed by the fact that the UK government appears to have pandered so heavily to the media outrage on this issue – in my view it should have stuck to its original plans up to 2015.

Aid and normative change. Should aid be used in this way?

A key question hanging over the international development industry is a quite fundamental one; should aid be used to try and achieve normative change in other countries? Since the Second World War, the concept of ‘universal’ human rights has gathered pace and extended into new areas of human life. But the recognition of such rights, and the fact they might not really extend universally across geographies and populations, raises the question of how – and whether – countries should seek to promote and protect the rights of citizens in other countries. In addition, such rights create a potential tension with cultural values, and aid development actors seeking to challenge cultural values that conflict with human rights may find themselves being criticised for imposing a kind of cultural hegemony.

Working in the industry myself, I find this raises some real concerns for me because the idea that through implementing a development programme I might be supporting the imposition of a foreign worldview, irrelevant to the concerns and interests of recipients, quite worrying. However, I also think that while I recognise this is a risk, there are numerous things international development actors can do to help avoid problems like this, and I feel the risks can be over-stated.

I used to work for an African health NGO called AMREF – the African Medical and Research Foundation. AMREF works at a micro level to try and extend health services to communities that otherwise have very little access to them. The reason I mention their work is that some of the projects they implement involve challenging cultural behaviours now recognised to be detrimental to health, such as female genital mutilation. AMREF argue that FGM directly violates the human rights of girls and women and believes that it can help communities achieve “positive social change” (AMREF, 2013:1). While AMREF’s work in this area can be controversial amongst the target communities, they argue that they have achieved real results through the development of alternative rites of passage for teenage girls. I would argue that the manner in which such interventions are implemented helps to reduce the risk of accusations of cultural hegemony by working collaboratively with communities and respecting their views, but also seeking to raise awareness about the value of behavioural change.

More controversially, some international development actors have sought to use their resources and political muscle to try and drive what they see as “positive change” in less developed countries. For example, DFID’s cutting of aid to Uganda for the introduction of an anti-homosexuality bill and other Western outcry has been labelled an example of Western cultural hegemony. Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s State Minister for Ethics and Integrity said “The children of Uganda will be saved from this dangerous practice of same sexual marriages that Western countries want to impose on us. This bill respects the positive culture of Ugandans.” (Lokodo in IRIN, 2012:2). I think DFID’s decision to do something to stand up for LGBTI rights in Uganda was appropriate but I am not conviced that cutting budget support is necessarily the best approach (it should be noted that DFID did mantian its civil society programme on LGBTI rights). Having said that, I wonder if the decision would have been so controversial if the Ugandan government was legislating against, for example, an ethnic minority? One might argue that the world has not done enough to influence the decision of the Ugandan government on this issue. Perhaps DFID was showing a kind of enlightened leadership. I am skepticial of this arguement. In general, while we might disagree with the actions of some governments, I have concerns about aid agencies operating in this way. DFID’s action in this example represents a challenge to the concept of state sovereignty and demonstrates that aid donors have real power to threaten countries with reprisals if their cultural views are not respected. In general, it seems globalisation and the weakening of perceived barriers between groups inside and between countries has created a tension between national norms and minority rights.

Non-state development actors

In recent years the role and impact of non-state actors for development has been the subject of significant discussion, particularly as the spending power, influence and voice of such actors grows to new levels. Philanthropic organisations carry with them enormous resources and freedom to use those resources however they see fit. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made a total of $3.4 billion of grant payments in 2012 (BMGF, 2013) – more than total ODA payments than the governments of Switzerland ($3bn) or Denmark ($2.7bn) in 2012 (OECD DAC, 2013). In the face of it, the injection of new, large scale and flexible resources to development – particularly vaccine development or the promotion of access to financial services – might seem like a good thing, but is it all good news?

Michael Edwards raises some particular concerns about the impact of philanthropic organisations on democratic development (2012). He argues that while international foreign aid can help to foster the kind of institutions, economic growth and political stability required for genuine poverty alleviation, big philanthropy does not change the “social and political dynamics of places in ways that enable……the foundations for democratic development” (Edwards, 2012:4). I feel this chimes with Moore’s work on unearned income creating a disincentive for democratic development (Moore, 2001). While I am not sure that I agree with this assessment, I do have some sympathy with Edwards’ second criticism which is around accountability. He argues that “it privileges the voices of a tiny number of billionaires who are only weakly accountable to the public interest, or to governments or to international institutions” and “may…crowd out other, less powerful constituencies” (Edwards, 2012:4). For Edwards, Bill Gates could make a big contribution to development, but he could also make some massive mistakes and would not be held to account. He reports that the WHO are now struggling to find independent reviewers for health research purposes because they are “all on the payroll of the Gates Foundation” focussing on the eradication of malaria (ibid.). Furthermore, philanthropic organisations financed through private sector businesses may bring with them a certain ideological approach to development that sees the private sector and technological innovations as the solution to development challenges, even though they may be entirely inappropriate for the purpose. In my view, the fact that such organisations can bring additional resources to the financing of development, and can bring new and innovative ways of thinking, mean they have the potential to make a positive – complementary – contribution to global development efforts. However, the devil is in the implementation. I am concerned that the hype surrounding such initiatives, the presence of large sums of flexible funds and the weak accountability of leaders mean that they risk displacing other ongoing development efforts that might be achieving results without grabbing any headlines.

How important is it for national governments to set their own development agenda?

For me, a unifying theme linking both official development assistance between countries and aid provided by non-state actors is that the most sustainable and impactful way of doing development through both types of actors is to collaborate with and support a national government with a developmental set of priorities to implement its own strategies. In the context of a substantial intenational aid industry, ‘universal’ human rights and globalisation I think it is increasinlgy difficult – perhaps impossible – for countries to do this in solation from global pressures. For me, that can be a good thing, but only if the inputs and support offered by international development actors are complemetary to domestic development plans. This should not be taken to mean that international development actors should not operate in countries without the the capacity to design or implement their own development strategies. In such contexts development actors can step in and help states to fill gaps in the administration of their country. However, states must always be conscious of the geopolitical context in which aid is given between countries and accept it only where it alligns with their own priorities.

In the case of DFID I would argue that to a great extent it does seek to allign its work with recipient country priorities. Here in India, for example, the DFID Operational Plan for 2011-2015 explicity sets out to support implementation of the Government of India’s 12th 5-year plan and all projects are co-designed and approved by the Government of India. However, as the Uganda anti-homosexuality legislation demonstrated, DFID’s position on supporting national development strategies is clearly conditional on some level of respect for ‘universal’ human rights. This is a rather disempowering fact for recipients of DFID’s aid because committed resources can be withdrawn where the UK deems a country has not met the standards it expects. In this respect, recipient countires remain subject to a kind of cultural hegemony dictated by donor governments. Having said this, I don’t think it would be right for DFID to ignore the rights of minorities in less developed countries. But the cutting of budget support is a very blunt instrument and may not be the most efficacious method of protecting the rights of such groups.



AMREF (2013) AMREF’s position on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (Online) http://www.amref.org/info-hub/our-position/amrefs-position-on-female-genital-mutilationcutting/

Barder, O. (2005) Reforming Development Assistance: Lessons from the UK Experience (Online) http://www.cgdev.org/files/4371_file_WP_70.pdf (12th February 2013)

Beall, J., Goodfellow, T. and Putzel, J. (2006) Policy Arena introductory article: On the discourse of terrorism, security and development. Journal of International Development. 18: 51-67

BMGF (2013) Gates Foundation Factsheet (Online) http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are/General-Information/Foundation-Factsheet

CAFOD (2011) The UK Bilateral Aid Review. Analysis and response. (Online) http://www.cafod.org.uk/content/download/551/5562/file/Policy_Aid_CAFOD-response-to-the-Bilateral-Aid-Review.docx (10th February 2013)

Cameron, D. (2010) Statement on Strategic Defence and Security Review. (Online) http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/sdsr/ (8th February 2013)

DFID (2005) Fighting Poverty to Build a Safer World: A Strategy for Security and Development (Online) www.dfid.gov.uk/pubs/files/securityforall.pdf (6th February 2013)

DFID (2012) Statistics on international development 2012. (Online) http://www.dfid.gov.uk/About-us/How-we-measure-progress/Aid-Statistics/Statistics-on-International-Development-2012/  (9th February 2013)

Edwards, M. (2012) DOES BIG PHILANTROPY UNDERMINE DEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENT? (Online) http://www.hivos.net/Knowledge-Programme2/Themes/Civil-Society-Building/News/Does-Big-Philantropy-Undermine-Democratic-Development 

Haddad, L. (2011) Six things we learned from DFID’s Aid Review. (Online) http://www.developmenthorizons.com/2011/03/six-things-we-learned-from-dfids-aid.html (8th February 2013)

HM Treasury (2010) Comprehensive Spending Review. (Online) cdn.hm-treasury.gov.uk/sr2010_completereport.pdf (7th February 2013)

IRIN (2012) UGANDA: Anti-gay bill could be passed before Christmas (Online) http://www.irinnews.org/report/96765/uganda-anti-gay-bill-could-be-passed-before-christmas

Mitchell, A. (2011) Britain set to increase aid to Somalia (Online) http://www.dfid.gov.uk/news/latest-news/2011/mitchell-increased-aid-to-somalia-will-help-save-lives-and-make-britain-safer/ (8th February 2013)

Moore, M. (2001) Political underdevelopment: What causes bad governance.

Morgenthau, H. (1962) A Political Theory of foreign aid. The American Political Science Review Vol. 56, No. 2, Jun., 1962

ODI (2012) The UK’s approach to linking development and security: assessing policy and practice Working Paper 347 (Online) http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7658.pdf (12th February 2013)

OECD Development Assistance Committee (2013) Query Wizard for International Development Statistics (Online) http://stats.oecd.org/qwids (6th February 2013)

UK Parliament (2002) International Development Act (Online) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2002/1/part/1 (8th February 2013)

White House (2010) US National Security Strategy (Online) http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf (11th February 2013)


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