Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Redefining Development

By Christopher HannaPublished March 13, 2015

For decades, the practice of international development has been subject to politicization by the American government. It is high time that the values of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and empathy be rediscovered and reasserted among those involved in the deliverance of development aid.
By Christopher Hanna, 03/13/15

2015 is a momentous year for the development and humanitarian communities; the eight Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 by the United Nations are set to expire, paving the way for the enactment of a new international development agenda by the United Nations. One of the key American entities in the field, the United States Agency for International Development, is in much need of evaluation and reconsideration. The agency, a federal organization that receives billions in taxpayer dollars annually, claims to "promote resilient, democratic societies" abroad. But since its inception in 1961, it has done everything but promote genuine democratic development in the developing world.

Democracy, by definition, requires the existence of a government that is representative of and accountable to the people whom it governs. If a third party — whether it be the military, a special interest group, or a foreign agent — interferes with that two-way relationship, or shapes it to serve its own interests, democracy is corroded. 

USAID does exactly that; it interferes with democratization in the developing world by working towards the formation of "democratic" states that are exclusively amenable to American geopolitical and economic interests. By attempting to establish proxy regimes that are democratic in appearance only, it undermines its own goal of advancing America's reputation abroad by helping to forge and develop nascent representative governments.

For instance, in 2005, USAID took advantage of reform talks in Brazil, spending tens of thousands of dollars to lobby for legislation that would have exclusively benefited right-wing, pro-American parties. In 2012, responding specifically to USAID's attempts to destabilize Brazil and other elected leftist governments, a coalition of six Latin American countries expelled USAID. They sent a resounding message that reverberated among the nations of the developing world: Western assistance is welcomed, but Western interference is not. Influence can perhaps be earned through mutual displays of generosity and trust, but it cannot be bought.

The wars in the Middle East, too, have been exploited by USAID for self-interested gain. In 2008, it was uncovered that 40% of aid to Afghanistan returned to the U.S. and its allies through the awarding of inflated government contracts to Western corporations. This incestuous cronyism was also at play in Iraq; the five companies selected through a "competitive" process to bid on a $600 million USAID Iraqi reconstruction and redevelopment project were shown to have close ties to the then-governing Bush administration.

To be fair, USAID has made much headway in alleviating poverty, providing relief in the aftermath of disaster, and contributing to the socioeconomic development of poor countries. But it is clear that the social and humanitarian assistance it provides is a "privilege" that is bestowed upon quiescent poor nations and callously suspended if a government exercises its sovereign right to make decisions that the foreign aid-giver — the United States government — does not agree with. Take the case of Yemen, which is the poorest country in the Middle East. In 1990, the U.S. government infamously ceased USAID's humanitarian operations in Yemen in response to the Yemeni government's vote against a UN resolution permitting a controversial American-led invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. In this decision, the hegemonic advancement of American interests, rather than a moral compulsion to provide relief and aid to suffering peoples in the developing world, served as the guiding light and operating principle of USAID efforts.

USAID is not the only culprit of heartless aid politicization. During the Yugoslav War in the nineties, the European Union provided fuel and resources exclusively to cities under the control of Serbia's European-backed opposition, leaving the inhabitants of pro-government districts to starve. Development practitioner Fiona Fox has documented the pervasive politicization of Western aid to the developing world, calling it "a new form of colonialism." She is certainly right; when a Western country delivers desperately needed aid on coercive grounds in order to further its geopolitical and economic aims, an anti-democratic, neo-colonial relationship is manifest.

Some would argue that conditional, politicized aid merely strengthens the twin forces of democracy and Western influence by incentivizing people in the recipient country to embrace representative government and the world's Western-dominated market system. This certainly makes sense; if economic development occurs on the watch of a government, that government and its foreign backers will naturally gain the support of those who benefit (i.e. its constituents). But if the U.S. government's politicization of development and humanitarian assistance was popular, global perceptions would look far different; a Gallup International poll in 2013 found the U.S. to be the greatest perceived threat to world peace, ahead of Pakistan and China, indicating record-low international support for the U.S. government. When mealy-mouthed aid-givers work to advance the self-interested goals of foreign governments and corporations, fear and distrust — rather than friendship and mutual support — triumph.

With the Millennium Development Goals nearing their expiration date, there truly exists no better time to reframe the discourse — and policies — on foreign assistance. As we approach the post-2015 era, development agendas that are infected with political motivations should be thrown into the waste bin. It is high time that the values of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and empathy be rediscovered and reasserted among all involved in the deliverance of foreign aid.