First, let’s be clear. Every abuse of human rights is an avoidable outrage; an affront not only to an individual but an affront to the rights of all people everywhere, and to the values people in Britain hold dear. So what follows is not an apology for tyranny. Abusive governments must be challenged wherever possible to do better by their people.
But, as I argued at Birmingham University last week at a panel event that included former Secretary of State of the Department for International Development (DFID) Andrew Mitchell, we won’t do this by withdrawing aid from non-democracies. This is for five main reasons.
First, the central aim of British aid is poverty alleviation, as set out in the International Development Act and reconfirmed in the most recent DFID Aid Strategy. The vast majority of countries are not functioning democracies by any reasonable measurement. Democracies are rare, most are imperfect (including our own), and all but a few are only recently democratised. And the vast majority of poverty is in non-democratic states. To withdraw aid spending from these countries would be to further punish people who may already suffer under authoritarian rule.
Second, less than 10% of DFID’s bilateral aid is currently given directly to governments, but is rather spent via agencies such as Save the Children in the communities where help is most needed. In many ways this is to be regretted; after all, the most effective aid is spent through governments to build the systems, services and institutions that will render aid unnecessary in the long term. But where governments are shown to be corrupt or to be abusing the human rights of their citizens, this kind of budget support is rightly withdrawn, as has happened in Malawi and elsewhere in recent years. So British aid does not support the kind of regimes we rightly condemn, it supports the people living under these regimes. Aid here is a practical expression of solidarity between taxpayers living in the UK and individuals living in often awful circumstances elsewhere.
Third, the level of authoritarianism in a country is in reality a very weak guide to the quality of governance in that country, including levels of corruption or human rights abuse. Having personally worked in both Rwanda and Liberia, one an effective single-party state and the other a rowdy democracy, I can personally attest that aid is much more effectively spent, and far less prey to corruption, in the former than in the latter. Authoritarian governments are actually often rather good at development, as Vietnam demonstrated when it became one of the only countries to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, including reducing extreme poverty by 96%. Clearly, having blanket policies for different governance arrangements in developing countries lacks nuance and understanding of complex local realities.
Fourth, we have no reason to believe that the presence of aid, or its withdrawal, has any impact on the levels of corruption or human rights abuse in recipient countries. Look at the regime in Zimbabwe, which has survived in defiance of the international community for almost 40 years. There is a kind of neo-colonial hubris that comes with thinking that the thing most exercising the mind of your average dictator is whether DFID is spending aid in a country or not. Political settlements and evolutions are for the most part domestically driven.
Finally, aid does what other forms of finance cannot, and to that extent it’s an invaluable and in many ways irreplaceable flow of development finance to a country. As ONE’s recently launched Campaign for Real Aid argues, high quality aid targets those being left behind by economic progress. It crowds in other flows of finance, including from the private sector. At its best it invests in the systems, civil society and institutions that will provide the basis for both socioeconomic development and more democratic forms of government in the long term.
Let’s continue to challenge dictators and human rights abuses wherever we can. But let’s not give up on the power of aid in the process.