Development Aid: To Give or Not to Give?

Sep 19, 2001

International development aid practice has received serious condemnation over the past few years. Books such as Michael Maren’s The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity and Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families present horrifying accounts of famine and genocide that were, at least in part, the results of development aid programs. One of the consequences of these public failures has been a five-year decline in official development assistance, meaning aid provided by donors to organizations in other countries to fulfill socioeconomic or political development objectives. In 1970, the United Nations adopted an international target for aid, recommending that donor countries give 0.7 percent of their national income in foreign aid. Today, only three countries meet that target: Denmark, Netherlands, and Sweden.

Should we of good intentions give up? If results are negligible at best and war-inducing at worst, and interest in giving among those who can is plummeting, perhaps it is best to call it quits: close down the UN poverty eradication projects, cancel the immunization programs of the World Health Organization, and halt the World Bank’s reconstruction efforts in the Balkans.

Yet, as Mary Anderson argues in her book Do No Harm, "it is a moral and logical fallacy to conclude that because aid can do harm, a decision not to give aid would do no harm." Most of us could not live in a world where aid was withheld from those in need. So the vital question is: how can those who can give address need in a way that does not exacerbate the problem?

A start would be to consider carefully new research that challenges traditional understandings of development aid. Aid can no longer be assumed to be neutral. "All development aid constitutes a form of political intervention," says Peter Uvin in his book Aiding Violence. Aid therefore must be analyzed in terms of its potential impact on the political and social structure of the recipient country. Do No Harm provides one resource for lessons learned on this topic; using the past experiences of donors, the book develops strategies to more effectively provide aid in the future.

A second vital point is that donors must coordinate efforts. While the past ten years have seen a considerable rise in coordination among donor aid agencies, contradictory definitions of problems and incompatible solutions offered by different agencies still hinder the provision of aid. Recent efforts, such as those by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to develop aid strategies that provide incentives for peace and disincentives for war, should be encouraged and implemented on a multilateral level.

Finally, and most important, we need to revolutionize the relationship between those countries that can give and those countries that have need. Terms such as donor and recipient, developed and underdeveloped, and first world and third world expose a stagnant condition of inequity, where one group is always in a position to give, or not give, in the manner that they see fit, and the other group can only receive. The development relationship must evolve into one of responsible partners learning and working together to build long-term strategies that address the needs and capacities of both parties.

Related Links:
The Collaborative for Development Action
The Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
The United Nations Development Programme

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