When you think of development aid what comes to mind? Is it helping someone in an impoverished country – probably Africa if you live in the UK – find access to water, food or adequate shelter? Or is it vote rigging, corruption and power politics? You would have to be some kind of cynic to think the latter, the kind of person who decries Bob Geldof and Live Aid.
Is it possible that development aid is just a pawn in the hand of modern day states to garner support for their moral, political or economic agenda? Yes, is the simple answer to that question. The kind of underhand tactics that would be scorned and rooted out in any self-respecting democratic country are regularly practised at the highest levels of international politics. This is not a new story, but it is one that is often forgotten.
We begin with the UN and its Security Council (SC) apparatus. Now, for the uninitiated the body is comprised of fifteen members. Five of these – China, Russia, the UK, the USA and France – have a lifetime membership card to this party, while the other ten spots are rotated on a two-year basis. These positions are currently held by Angola, Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain and Venezuela.
An interesting finding was noted in 2006 that directly correlated an increase in US aid to new members of the Security Council. The analysis paper by Harvard University academics, rather unambiguously entitled, ‘How much is a seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations’, is quite clear in its belief that the US had only one thought in mind in contributing aid. They sought an extra vote to back their global political agenda and the means of achieving this was humanitarian aid. The authors found that a rotating seat on the Council comes with an additional $16 million bonus from the US, and a further $1million from the UN itself. However, during particularly ‘newsworthy’ years, when the UN and its ventures were plastered over the news, the increased aid rocketed to $45 million and $8 million respectively (UN aid was primarily funded through an increase in UNICEF aid, an organisation with strong links to Washington).
The implication is quite staggering and there are indications that it is occurring now with the current crop of SC invitees. A simple internet search on each of the current members, primarily those in the ‘Global South’ -being the members most likely to be dependent on aid – returned some interesting findings. According to the US government site, ‘ForeignAssistance.Gov’, Jordan and Chad both received rises in aid upon assuming their seats on the Security Council. Amongst the previous incumbents, Guatemala and Morocco both experienced a similar rise in aid when they took up their seats from 2012 to 2013. In all four cases the level of aid dropped after their term on the SC was up. What this suggests then is that the report still holds true today. Although other factors are of course involved – Nigeria, for example, experienced a doubling of its aid in the same year it became a member of the council, but this may also explained by the conflict with Boko Haram that made headlines that same year.
The practice of using aid as a levering tool on the international stage is not one confined to the US. It is a powerful tool that is used by all those who possess the means to do so. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is not exempt from entanglement in this political game either as a separate study found that “IMF loans are one mechanism by which the the major stakeholders of the IMF – mainly the US, but also Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom – can win the favour of the UN Security Council.”
Other examples are also abundant. Take for instance Chinese aid to Venezuela. The two nations have had a long standing relationship and this was further cemented by a $20 billion loan package to alleviate the South American country’s crippling financial woes – Venezuela, of course, being a current occupier of a SC seat.
The use of aid can also extend to the ludicrous. In 2009 Russia paid the tiny Pacific island of Nauru a sum equivalent to $50 million dollars in return for recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Iran followed a similar route by allegedly paying $200,000 to the Solomon Islands to ensure their vote against motions concerning Israel in the UN General Assembly.
Aid is also used as a rather powerful weapon. As a means of curbing dissent on international issues it can be persuasive. For this example we must return to the US and its drug policy. For many years the prohibition regime in place today has been linked to the aid policy of the US. Aid packages are promised to those who toe the line but if any country is deemed to be not acting according to the desires of the US, they are likely to have the aid tap turned off. This has repeatedly been the case for Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest countries, which continues to frustrate Washington by going its own way on drug policy regardless of the negative consequences. For several years Bolivia has been targeted by the US and suffered a dramatic decline it its own levels of aid in order to pressure the government of Evo Morales into capitulating.
The use of aid as political leverage is morally abhorrent. It is an act that would be weeded out of democratic systems in an instant. The use of bribes, not to be confused with lobbying of course, to influence votes in an elected house would be tantamount to a criminal act. A politician caught accepting a bribe would not be expected to survive such a scandal, we would hope. However, on the international stage it is evidently a widespread and accepted practice.
With no auditor ruling above the head of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly, it is hardly a truly democratic system similar to those of domestic institutions. In any case trying to bring the US, China or Britain, or any other aid giving state, to the Hague on a charge of bribery would be laughed off in an instant. Instead of focussing upon the morality of the issue, which is probably quite clear, we can instead ask instead whether the practice is beneficial or not, and if so for whom?
It is perhaps somewhat of a political truism that aid is not given for nothing on the international stage. Altruism is a trait that is lacking amongst the powers of the world. For the realist political scholar Hans Morgenthau, there are three power levers on the international stage – logic, bribes and threats. The use of aid may be the easiest of the levers to call upon as it is power wrapped in an altruistic guise, often difficult to seperate. In the case of the Security Council the potential benefits are self-evident. Plying a new candidate with additional funds may or may not sway their voting opinion; the evidence on whether it actually works is rather inconclusive. When attaching aid to powerful moral and political missions, such as the ´War on Drugs´ or the ´War on Terror´, aid becomes a potent weapon to be wielded allowing the rich states to shape the world in their own image.
To remove the focus from the aid givers gives us a different perspective entirely. Take for instance the tiny island of Nauru – home to around 9,000 people, making it the second smallest country in the world. The country has previously lost respect for selling its international voice, so when it did so again to Russia in 2008 for a large sum of aid it was merely following an established procedure. But for a marginalised and out of the way nation such as this with little or no resources, why wouldn´t they? It is somewhat of a win-win situation in this case. The country receives a much needed lump sum of aid for an action that will have little or no consequences for the government of Nauru. It could be said that they are merely playing the game of aid themselves.
There is of course no clear answer. It is both shocking and unsurprising to learn the extent to which countries play with humanitarian aid. It is a fact of international politics which is unlikely to change. Aid not only corrupts institutions such as the IMF and UNICEF, making them tools in the hands of powerful states, but it is also wielded as a tool of coercion against those who do not follow an international agenda. But for the smaller states of the world the chance to obtain a large influx of cash for selling their voice and opinion is a enormous opportunity that cannot be merely cast aside. Until an honest, fairer distributive system of international wealth is found, we should expect to hear from more tiny countries like Nauru in the future.