On a surface level, the act of foreign aid seems simple. If there is a nation in crisis and there are countries in a position to provide assistance in the form of shelter, food, healthcare or security, then providing aid would appear to be an obvious, ethical decision to take.

However, the complexities and nuances of the countries in need of assistance, and those providing foreign aid, means that this is more than just an ethical call. Strategy and hard interests also come into play, muddying the waters of decision-making. Investment Monitor investigates whether ‘ethical’ aid benefits the ‘unethical’.

Basic aid is the least complicated part

Foreign aid comes in many shapes and sizes. US diplomat and former Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business affairs in the US, Earl Anthony Wayne, says: “The traditional model for how you handle rebuilding after disasters, whether it is a war disaster or a natural disaster, is that you have an initial humanitarian thrust where the focus is keeping people alive.”

Wayne explains that despite initial logistical complications such as access, calculating the aid needed and fundraising for the aid itself, this initial relief phase is perhaps the more straightforward part of humanitarian and, more broadly, foreign aid.

After initial support has been deployed, Wayne says that the conversation evolves to geopolitical relationships both with the country in need and the countries helping. A long process begins, between all parties, of how far aid will go and where the boundaries will exist.

“What kind of relationship will we have with the government? Do we push for them to reconstruct their government? Do we provide broader assistance and do we have a hand in rebuilding their economy through aid?” asks Wayne.

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This part of the process is where there could be potential for a long-term economic benefit for assisting countries. If they are able to build relations with the government and country they are assisting, the idea is that a prosperous country could provide a strong economic ally – however, this can never be guaranteed and could potentially benefit countries that never had a hand in providing aid.

Delegating to local actors a risk worth taking

The advice on providing aid from those with the most experience is not without its contradictions. Much like the very nature of humanitarian aid, the guidance is confusing, vague and subject to a change in principles on a case-by-case basis.

When a crisis is unfolding, governments monitor situations as closely as possible to get a feel for what is needed, whether that be healthcare, food, shelter or military protection. Gaining visibility is a crucial tool in evaluating the crisis level, but this is easier said than done.

In order to gain access, there has to be communication and an understanding of the nuances of the location and those in control. Gaining information and keeping a safe and non-threatening distance from conflict is a tricky tightrope to walk for aid providers.

Communication also highlights a knotty issue when providing aid – defining allies and keeping discussions open and not controversial – such as the US refusing to work with certain terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda.

“When [‘the West’ provides] overseas foreign aid or support, be it [diplomatic, economic, humanitarian or military], it involves a degree of delegation to local institutions, organisations, local actors,” says Dr Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. “And obviously, there is always the issue, particularly in the developing world, where you need to deal with corruption or [non-democratic regimes].”

In short, foreign aid is subject to the way local institutions and statecrafts work in the recipient country, meaning ‘Western’ countries often need to work alongside them.

“This means you need to give certain people a cut of the aid… and that is a risk that governments have to consider and take, depending on what it is they are trying to achieve, the strategic gains and losses of deploying support,” says Krieg. “The decision is not just built around [Western] values.” 

This chess game of allyship, information gathering and strategy is in constant flux and is easy to miscalculate, particularly in volatile countries such as Afghanistan and parts of Africa. 

Laura Hammond, professor of development studies at the SOAS University of London, gives an example of working in Ethiopia. She explains that there was a misunderstanding by the international community that this was going to be a protracted conflict. As a result, many organisations and countries took the government’s word for it that it was going to be a short-term thing. “They positioned themselves quite close to the government, when in fact, in order to have access they needed to be separate and more independent,” she says. “It is very difficult once you have lost that independence to try to get it back.”

Is tying aid to ethics counterproductive? 

When providing aid to non-democratic countries or regimes with high levels of corruption, another key problem is whether or not the aid then props up an ‘unfriendly’ actor, thereby unintentionally legitimising their power too. 

Hammond says: “Aid getting into the wrong hands is a chronic feature of working in these kinds of contexts. It is not that one has to throw up their hands and just accept it, but I think there has to be an understanding that there will be losses and there will be concessions to be made in order to keep access open.”

The approach to this and levels of stringent caveats – such as demanding certain human rights be met before aid is provided – differ between situations and locations. Hammond describes her recent work to get aid into Somalia facing roadblocks after the US government insisted that not a single drop of grain or dollar should end up in al-Shabaab hands – a militant group and part of al-Qaeda.

“Everyone who works in aid knows that is not how it works in conflict environments” says Hammond. “The US is holding that particular situation to a higher standard [than other aid crises] for the sake of home audiences.” 

At the root of the problem is the fact that statecraft in ‘the West’ often looks very different to that in emerging markets. 

“If we apply the same metrics and standards that we apply to ourselves to countries [such as Afghanistan], then we basically can’t deliver anything, which means we are completely useless or powerless,” says Krieg. 

“Tying aid to a foreign government alongside certain values means that you are creating conditionalities that many countries cannot meet, and we are competing in a global system with the likes of China or Russia, who don’t apply conditionalities to their support… So, strategic compromises need to be made, [increasingly so since] the liberal order as we know it is in a massive, deep state of crisis.”

There are plenty of ongoing examples of this ‘strategic compromise’. UK government rhetoric has criticised Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, not least in the ongoing war in Yemen, but Westminster also understands that it cannot afford to lose the Saudis, who are turning their heads east (to China) evermore, so it effectively turns a blind eye to any wrongdoings. 

“[Westminster] does whatever it takes to keep the Saudis on board, while always obviously reiterating how important human rights are for the UK,” says Kreig. “That is for the most part just a narrative, because at the end of the day it comes down to hard interests.”

While Western governments remain highly vocal about ‘liberal values’, hard interests seem, increasingly, to be in the driving seat of foreign aid decisions. With an evermore belligerent and anti-West China on the world stage, not to mention Russia too, this awkward balance seems more and more necessary to safeguard democratic values in the long term.