Motivations for Aid

Jason posted a great link earlier this week to a post on Owen Barder’s blog about the defense of aid as in the donor’s national interest.  Owen nets out here:

It is in our national interest to see faster development and the end of global poverty, and we should not be shy about saying so.   But we should think twice before using this as the central plank of the case for more effective development policies and more aid.  People do not need to be persuaded to care about global poverty: they do need to be convinced that there is something we can do about it.

Some random thoughts:

  1. Every time I’ve seen aid defended as instrumental to the donor’s national interest, the person talking is over 40.  It strikes me that those who’ve been in the aid industry for a long time have gotten very cynical about their fellow human beings.  I think it’s fair to say that most Americans don’t care about global poverty as deeply or in the same way as those who’ve made it their life’s work.  But I think there are large wells of compassion that do exist in the public and I believe these are ultimately much more aligned with good aid than are tendencies to act in the national interest.
  2. We need to find a better terminology to distinguish between political aid (i.e., Egypt) and development aid (i.e., Mali).  When we say “foreign aid”, I think the public doesn’t know what to think and conflates all that is bad with political aid with all they assume to be good in development aid.
  3. Americans’ assumptions about the percentage of the budget we allocate to foreign aid is a very significant overestimate and we need some kind of PR campaign to get the right figure (<1%) in their heads.  It’s difficult to argue for more aid when people assume it’s one of the biggest budget line items already.
  4. Contrary to Owen’s blog post, I think linking aid with the national interest is far from a neutral or somewhat positive initiative.  First, I don’t think many people think this is why we give aid.  Second, suggesting to the public that this is why we give aid is likely to lead to lots of questions as to exactly how X (e.g., primary school enrollment) development intervention in Y country (i.e., Burkina Faso, Benin, any other country most Americans can’t pronounce, etc.) serves the USA.  For a subject that few of the voting populace think of on a daily basis, we need a simple story line and the “generosity of the American people” working to alleviate global poverty, disease, illiteracy, etc. is, in my mind, the most aligned with good, effective aid.
  5. Tying aid to US contractors is one day going to bite us in the ass really hard.  As someone who’s seen how people on USAID contracts live, the benefits, and perks involved, I’m ashamed my tax dollars go to fund that.  I believe that aid can do good, I don’t believe USAID has created systems or incentives that most promote that.

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