Development aid shows the limits of the national interest

Clean hands: hygiene training in Afghanistan funded by Danish development aid (picture Annatasja1977)

A fascinating article by development expert Owen Barder on the difficulties of winning the argument over foreign aid.  It is frequently argued that providing development to the world’s poorest people is in our national interest, and so it is, but Owen Barder argues that it is not enough.

An aid programme designed in the national interest risks being a less effective aid programme, prone to all kinds of misdirection in order to palliate domestic economic or overseas political interests.

“We do not have institutions that can protect our long-term national interest in development and poverty reduction from the pressures to use aid to pursue these short-term strategic, security and commercial interests.  In a world of short time horizons, our immediate interests tend to prevail over our longer-term goals.  So the more we justify aid chiefly on the grounds of national interest, the greater the danger that our short-term national interest will dictate the way aid is used, with negative consequences for the effectiveness of aid and for our longer-term interest in poverty reduction.”

He prefers instead to focus on the argument that development works.  People in rich countries are willing to give aid, he believes, as long as they think it will actually help.  Too often, potential donors are deterred by the fear that the money will go astray: aid ends up as “poor people from rich countries giving money to rich people from poor countries.”

I am sure that there is something in this approach to aid policy, but federalism too has a role.  A key value of federalism is precisely that it establishes institutions that can protect the long-term national interest from short-term pressures.  (That is a major theme in the debate about prisoners’ voting rights in the House of Commons today.)  Arguing that the national interest lies in giving up what appears to be the expression of the national interest may be counter-intuitive, but it is correct.

Read the whole article here: http://www.owen.org/blog/4363

About the Author