Re-Politizing the European Aid Debate

By Iliana Olivié and Aitor Pérez EADI/ISS Blog Series

The economic, social and political crises that have erupted in Europe in the last decade might be shifting the academic debate on the drivers of aid from the more traditional selfish vs. solidary divide to a -somehow related- new divide on Nationalism vs. Liberalism-Cosmopolitanism. Recent examples are the Brexit process, or the rise of populist movements in Europe.

Most analyses of the drivers of Northern donors published in the last two decades have pointedly explored the extent to which countries contribute aid according to ‘good’ or altruistic motives (based on recipient needs and/or merits and driven by solidarity), or ‘bad’ or selfish reasons (essentially the donors’ national interests). A great deal of these studies concludes that, indeed, Northern countries give aid out of selfish motives, often related to security or wealth, which is seen as something morally reprehensible. According to this literature, donors should shift to a more altruistic view of aid, that should be grounded in the principle of solidarity.

Currently, a new divide between Nationalism and Liberalism-Cosmopolitanism is emerging in the academic debate on aid. To counter the ‘cultural backlash’ of either lobbying against aid, or for using aid to shut ‘the other’ out in many European countries and sectors, some academics and activists point out the need for aid as tool for the promotion of democracy, civil and human rights and a liberal ideal of world society. In this sense, aid can be used selfishly, but for the promotion of one’s values, not interests.

Aid to support political priorities

This new divide is one of the factors behind the current trend towards a ‘re-politization’ of aid, and signs of such trend manifest in the European aid narrative. For instance, the European Commission’s President-elect Ursula Von der Leyen’s mission letter to the new EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, states that it is necessary to ensure that “the European model of development evolves in line with new global realities […] and should contribute to our wider political priorities” . This is followed by more specific objectives, such as a comprehensive strategy for Africa, a post-Cotonou agreement, working towards the achievement of the SDGs, the promotion of gender equality and the support of civil society.

The ‘re-politization’ of aid, ‘politization’ or merely ‘politics’ is one of the driving ideas of our book “Aid power and politics”, recently published by Routledge. For instance, a sense of Liberalism and/or Cosmopolitanism lay behind the British former role as an aid super-power. In the late 90s and the beginning of this century, the UK played a strong leadership role in aid and development, building a strong capacity to influence the international aid community and, particularly, EU development cooperation policy. In a similar vein, the Scandinavian approach to aid -depicted as humane- responds to cosmopolitan and moral considerations. These values may be found among the policy drivers in this policy area, along with enlightened self-interest related to international common goods. This perspective also applies in the case of Brazil. This country has been one of the most active countries in South-South cooperation over the past two decades. A significant feature of Brazilian cooperation policy has been its wide coverage, in geographical, sectorial as well as instrumental terms. Moreover, Brazil has channelled a large part of its cooperation policy through multilateral organisations and has established relevant alliances with other emerging countries. In this context, the purpose of reforming the major multilateral organisations and the search for greater international projection have led Brazil to establish South-South coalitions, in its search of regional and global leadership.

Aid as a tool for shaping global governance

In other cases, it would be difficult to argue that Liberalism and/or Cosmpolitanism is the vision behind the donor’s aid program. For instance, under the constitution adopted after the Second World War, Japan was prevented from sending its Defence Forces abroad, or from solving international conflicts by military means. This is what has made development assistance an important tool in its international relations. Economic diplomacy is a key concept for Japan when dealing with developing countries. At the domestic level, development assistance is also a tool to stimulate the Japanese economy, assisting small- and medium-sized companies, in particular to establish themselves in less developed parts of the world. Also, in Hungary, the aid system was reformed in the mid 2010s, when the government took stronger political ownership of the policy area with a view of using foreign aid to support Hungarian business interests.

From this perspective, it could be argued that, when used politically, aid can be a tool for donors’ aiming at shaping global governance. This explains the evolving nature of ‘donorship’ as a result of the increasing weight of non-Western donors. It is also the reason why health objectives have shifted due to the appearance of private stakeholders in the global health system.

….Or the other way round?

However, this could also go the other way around: specific agendas, set in the aid universe, can shape the behaviour of countries or other agents.

These mechanics can be better understood with the study of specific agendas such as gender equality or democracy and good governance. In this latter case, this agenda, which became central in the aid regime in the late 1980s and 1990s, also faced difficulties in its implementation due to the confrontation of the international liberal consensus with domestic politics in recipient countries. As for gender equality, donor organisations cannot avoid addressing it in their development cooperation, but they can do so in substantially different ways. In the end, organisational origins, priorities and pressures, as well as normative environments, tend to bias and dilute global norms on gender equality.

Aid or, at least, its narrative, is increasingly politicised. In addition, this is happening in a period of emerging populist and/or nationalist movements or political parties in Europe. Maybe counter-intuitively, nationalism or populism does not necessarily lead to decreasing aid budgets or a lower profile for international assistance. The explanation lies in the fact that aid – eventually, re-shaped – can be a useful tool for fulfilling donors’ interests.

Iliana Olivié is senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and associate professor at the Complutense University of Madrid

Aitor Pérez is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute

Image: Twitter feed Jutta Urpilainen, 20 January 2020

At the upcoming EADI ISS Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”, Iliana Olivié will be hosting the roundtable session “What values and goals drive international assistance? Solidarity, self-interest, democracy and security in European aid

This article is part of a series launched by EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It will also be published on the ISS Blog.