The subject of foreign aid is often raised in modern political debate. How much is enough? Where is the money spent? Who needs it the most? Often the issue centres around whether sending money to developing countries should be a priority for the governments of wealthy states.
For example, in the televised leaders’ debates ahead of the 2017 UK general election, the former leader of the UK Independence Party, Paul Nuttall, suggested that he would like to spend £1.4 billion on social care in Britain. How would it be funded? Well, he said, his party would take the money “directly from a foreign aid budget that is costing [the UK] around £13 billion every single year”.
When Nuttall later reiterated his argument that there is no need to put up taxes as he would simply use the “money from the foreign aid budget which is costing us £30m every single day”, the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, interrupted: “Taking it away from refugees then, yeah?”. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon added her support: “Take [the aid] from the poorest people in the world?”
A familiar argument then, that foreign aid amounts to a form of state charity. Wood and Sturgeon did not question the philanthropic guise of foreign aid stressed by Nuttall and are seemingly appalled by his apparent lack of compassion for the world’s poor.
The discussion within these debates, replicated in wealthy countries around the world, surrounds how much international state charity should be provided – not whether foreign aid really has such altruistic motives at its heart.
This positive moral purpose is supported by prominent philosophers and intellectuals such as Peter Singer and Neil Levy. Both have written that foreign aid actually has a higher purpose to that of everyday charity because it focuses entirely on helping those in absolute – as opposed to relative – poverty. Levy considers it a moral duty that wealthy states provide foreign aid.
There is, however, another argument, which has largely disappeared from mainstream thought. It is that all charity is an act of witting or unwitting conservatism on the part of donors and activists, which ultimately prevents meaningful change or redistribution of power.
This argument brings into sharp focus the philosophical undertones of what “goodness” means and the very notion of what “doing good” actually involves.
Therefore, while members of the public tend to believe that foreign aid amounts to a form of state altruism, it is clear that those in charge of foreign aid are communicating from a disingenuous platform. The primary purpose of this industry is to fulfil the power ambitions of the source or self-styled “donor” state.
As the anthropologist Arturo Escobar satirically explains, the poverty of certain parts of the world appears to have been “discovered” after World War II. Then, as part of the doctrine of the then US president, Harry S. Truman, the narrative surrounding the planet’s poorest people moved to one of delivering them from their destitution.
It was as though the former colonial exploiters had suddenly discovered a moral compass, when in actual fact the post-war growth of the foreign aid industries was part of attempts to ensure imperial continuity in this post-colonial era.
More broadly, we know that governments do not purposefully give away their power and do not want to create an abundance of rival powers. Therefore, any assistance provided by aid is usually geared towards making its recipients more efficient producers within their designated world economic position.
Poverty and power
To this end, foreign aid will not fundamentally alter the status of a country or its inhabitants. The rich will remain rich, and the poor will remain poor, and any expectation other than that will only result in disappointment. Therefore, foreign aid is, in its entirety, an act of conservation towards a grossly unjust status quo.
All of this occurs in stark contrast to the philanthropic industries’ own narrative, which maintains an emphasis on the redistribution of power and wealth by “helping”.
One justification of foreign aid often provided by advocates of the industry is that the motive does not matter if people are being helped. However, this can be refuted on several levels.
Donor countries motivated by self-interest are more likely to expect gratitude for their actions, and an aid industry guided by donor satisfaction leads to situations where those most in need are not necessarily those most likely to receive assistance. But no one ought to be grateful for receiving charity – and certainly not when it comes from those whose power and agency ultimately reinforces the plight of the recipient.
I have presented aspects of this discussion at several academic conferences, and those who are advocates of foreign aid often ask: “What’s the alternative then?” But such a question only serves to continue the misrepresentation of foreign aid as a force for good, as it presupposes the aid industry’s noble intent.
Instead, what ought to be recognised in mainstream discussion is that those in wealthy countries are responsible for the plight of the world’s destitute – by electing governments who subsequently back candidates in poor countries who are favourable to their economic interests, by endorsing multinational corporations who exploit the resources of distant lands, and by consuming without conscience or understanding of the reverberations of their choices.
The extreme suffering of the world’s poor is not a hapless misfortune or abstract concern to be dealt with by the voluntary donations of states or civil society. It is absolutely the consequence of our behaviour – and any attempt to deal with this crisis must begin with understanding, introspection, and making subsequent changes to our outlook and activities. Foreign aid certainly isn’t the answer.
Colin Alexander does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.