Human rights as conditions for aid: how long is a piece of string?

Marta Foresti, of the Overseas Development Institute, argues that making overseas aid conditional on government practice is counterproductive and harmful.


Marta Foresti is the head of the politics and governance programme at the Overseas Development Institute.

In theory it makes perfect sense: aid to poor countries should not come without strings attached.

This is the gist of what Malcolm Bruce said on the Today programme this morning when discussing the new International Development Select Committee report into aid and fragile sates.

The idea that British taxpayers’ hard-earned money should not be used to support ineffective and totalitarian regimes is one few could disagree with.

Aid donors should use their influence to press for political freedoms and real commitment to poverty reduction. When these conditions are not met, as in Burma despite recent improvements, aid should be withdrawn or channelled through non-state actors, usually international or local NGOs.

Although this is nothing new, there appears to be a renewed interest in the ‘aid conditionality’ debate, and specifically on human rights and other forms of political conditionality.

Yet in practice political aid conditionality often does not work.

There are three main reasons:

• Thresholds, double standards and teeth.

Identifying non-negotiable conditions or thresholds beyond which aid is withdrawn or renegotiated is simply not practical or enforceable. David Cameron recently hinted that British aid should not be given to countries that do not respect gay rights. But what about countries that do not fulfil women’s rights? Or where there are no free democratic elections?

There is simply no way to enforce a one-size-fits-all mechanism that establishes minimum standards or thresholds for acceptable human rights performance.

As some have argued the UK does not give aid to Burma but has found ways to continue channelling aid to Ethiopia; a decision based not on substantial differences in the two countries’ human rights record but (rightly, I think) on a range of (geo)political and  economic priorities.

• Carrots and sticks.

Malcolm Bruce is right when he says that donors should do what they can to influence the performance of aid recipient countries, including improving political freedoms.

However, this is more likely to be achieved through dialogue and negotiations, and a focus on incentives and results, than by threats – which more often lead to ‘strategic compliance’ than fundamental changes in behaviours and relationships.

Also, it is worth noting that the removal of UK aid may not significantly affect the capacity of government when they can turn to other sources such as China, but it can be a real loss to citizens.

• Aid alone does not matter enough.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, whilst aid can make a real difference in supporting economic and social transformation, aid alone (and hence donors) is not likely to have a significant effect on domestic processes of political change – even in countries, such as Rwanda, where aid is a significant component of the national budget and is contributing to remarkable economic and social development.

Whilst it is highly desirable that human rights records in the country will improve, it is not clear how in practice the UK or other donors could use their leverage on the Government to increase political freedoms, as recommended by the IDC report.

Internal pressure, including from Rwandan citizens, media and business, as well as from other regional powers/actors is likely to matter more.

All this does not mean that the international community has no role to play in improving human rights and promote political freedoms.

As my colleague Jonathan Glennie always reminds, aid conditionality and other international sources of pressure mean that the government in Colombia is much more concerned about human rights and the rule of law than it otherwise would have been.

My point is simply that diplomatic efforts, trade rules and other forms of international pressure carefully tailored to the individual countries circumstances are more effective mechanisms than aid conditionality alone.

See also:

Cameron is abdicating his responsibility on international development – David Taylor, October 14th 2011

New report justifies aid to India and other Middle Income Countries – Gareth Thomas MP, August 24th 2011

Other nations need to follow Britain’s lead to avert disaster in Africa – David Taylor, July 6th 2011

International development back in the news – where it belongs – Jim Dobbin MP, June 8th 2011

Government review of UK aid – goals and reaction – Shamik Das, March 1st 2011

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