Photo Credit: Marcus Butt/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Decolonising International Aid: Why Aid Does More Bad than Good

Ever since the Second World War, aid has become a means for the international community to uplift underdeveloped and developing countries out of poverty and humanitarian crises. Does international aid, however, actually fulfil what it’s meant to fulfil? The answer isn’t straightforward. In the case of the Global South, current poverty data and recent debates about its effectiveness may suggest this might not be the case. Shue-er from the IAS Gazette examines the role of aid and how it may need a structural revamp to further development in the Global South.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Poverty, famines, humanitarian crises –– the international community has long been responding to Africa’s woes by providing economic aid. Its effectiveness, however, has become a topic of contention. Two major camps arise from this debate: First, the normative consensus –– that aid is helpful and is a necessary do-gooder to alleviate the suffering that permeates the underdeveloped world. In other words, the more economic aid, the better chances of reducing poverty. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that economic aid is ineffective, and has perhaps done more harm than good. 

Taking the former perspective into consideration, billions of funds have been pumped into the Global South in the history of international aid. If that’s the case, shouldn’t countries in the region be on a better economic footing now compared to decades earlier, when they began receiving inflows of foreign aid? Data suggests that this, unfortunately, may not be the case. In fact, poverty in numbers has only been increasing. According to the World Bank, global poverty, at its current rate, will become increasingly representative of the African region with predicted rates to go up to a whopping 90 per cent in 2030 from 55 per cent in 2015. 

The graph shows that the number of African people living in poverty is on an incline, despite the rate of poverty decreasing slightly. | Photo Credit: The World Bank

As the argument goes, could this be an issue of insufficient funds? Perhaps not. 

This can be broken down into a few reasons. 

Promoting a Culture of Over-Reliance & Corruption 

Some would argue that the billions of dollars that Africa receives have led governments in the region to be complacent and overly reliant on aid. That their economy has become aid-dependent, preventing governments from utilising the opportunities provided by the global market and possibly hindering economic growth. 

Moreover, the dependence on aid could be compounded by the way the funds are allocated. Peter Bauer, British development economist and pioneering critic of foreign aid, believed that government-to-government aid only evoked the danger of increasing the government’s power, encouraging corruption and the misallocation of resources. Thus, factors such as corruption, personal interests and bad governance could all be reasons why incoming funds are not distributed to the people and problems that most require it. 

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo shares similar sentiments. She, however, goes on further to argue that not only has aid been ineffective, but it has actually exacerbated poverty. In an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal, she made scathing remarks on the detrimental role aid has played in Africa:  

“The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment. It’s increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest… Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.”

This is especially the case when funds are given to countries regardless of their problematic governance. Aid becomes counterintuitive, effectively incentivising bad policies and discouraging governments from working for the interests of their people. In short, the argument suggests that aid is ineffective in places of bad governance, and in areas of good governance with good economic policy, aid is perhaps hardly necessary. 

An Issue of Structure 

When we think about the donors of foreign aid, we mostly turn our eyes to the Global North. William Easterly, an American economist and former staff of the World Bank is a more recent critic of foreign aid. In his book, The White Man’s Burden, he brings about the perspective that the top-down approach by Western countries in their pursuit to alleviate poverty in Africa is all wrong and that their big solutions in the likes of “development goals” are far too “utopian”. Thus, these goals are not only bound to fail but also divert attention from solutions and resources that may actually work. 

Building on the previous point, most of the people providing these goals and solutions are detached from what is needed on the ground, preventing the optimisation of local solutions to local problems to access economic growth. I would even go further to say that the system of foreign aid itself, is heavily rooted in its colonial history. The idea that the Global South is in constant dire need of help specifically from institutions in the West perpetuates a form of “White saviour” complex. The problem with the structure is that it operates from the gaze (and possibly interests) of the West, effectively providing solutions that represent a lack of understanding about local agendas and realities. 

Acknowledging the Role of Colonialism in Aid

Olivia U. Rutazibwa an Assistant Professor for Human Rights and Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) argues that her years studying international relations have brought her to the conclusion that the notion of aid and international development should be rid of completely. She goes on to say that the study of International Relations in itself is built on the “whitewashing of history” and is inherently blind to racism

Which brings me to ask: Is aid really a gesture of generosity from the West or is aid a term rebranded from what should be labelled as repair and repatriations for the acts committed in the South during the colonial era? 

By Rutazibwa’s account, that is something that the discipline of International Relations has yet to touch on. 

If aid has such repercussions, what then can be done to change its current structure? 

Decolonising Aid and Turning to Local Solutions

The ‘decolonisation’ of aid has been a subject of debate in recent times. The term ‘decolonisation’ as a sole word refers to the processes that former colonies undertake to become independent from their colonising country. In aid specifically, it refers to the subtext of decolonisation in which processes are undertaken to deconstruct colonial ideologies that places precedence on the ‘superior’ perspectives and approaches of the West – which has created inequality and imbalance. 

Rather than a top-down approach, a participatory approach would be more apt for addressing the needs of the locals. Highlighting Easterly’s criticism of current aid structures, he notes that people who are locally informed, whether they be entrepreneurs or non-profit individuals, most probably have the right resources and incentives to tackle problems on the ground. He further argues that the reason why current strategies do not work is that they fail to provide accountability and do not demand feedback. In sum, how can you fix a problem if you don’t understand what exactly needs to be fixed?  

He also points out the outcome of what happens when underdeveloped societies become less dependent on external aid: they start to look internally. Countries like China received little foreign aid as compared to nations in the South and yet according to the World Bank, close to 800 million people were pulled out of poverty in the last forty years. He attributes the economic successes of East Asian countries including China as a product of self-reliance – that “only the self-reliant efforts of poor people and poor societies themselves can end poverty, borrowing the ideas and institutions from the West when it suits them to do so”. 

Perhaps, it’s worth starting from within.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


+ posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

About Us

The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

The Capital Magazine

%d bloggers like this: