Why there’s a case for giving foreign aid to authoritarian regimes

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Should democracies give foreign aid to countries that are not democracies? That’s the topic I will be debating with leading thinkers from Islamic Relief, Oxfam GB, and British politics at the University of Birmingham on 31 January.

Democratic aid donors don’t have enough money to do all the things they want to in the world, so they need to find ways to decide how to ration aid. This means that not choosing to give their taxpayers’ hard earned money to authoritarian governments might seem like an easy decision.

For starters, isn’t it hypocritical to demand respect for human rights while simultaneously aiding governments that abuse them? And how can donor countries incentivise authoritarian states to be more democratic if they help them to fund their budgets, and – albeit indirectly – their repressive activities?

But things are a little more complicated than they may first appear. I argue that four main justifications can be made for sending aid to authoritarian states, and that even the most evangelical democrat must accept two of them.

Different principles

It’s useful to start by seeing things through the eyes of a committed democrat. If governments and individuals care about democracy enough to not give aid to authoritarian regimes, then presumably they also care about having more democracies in the world.

But the same governments and individuals can hardly expect to influence foreign states if they don’t engage with them. And, engaging in trade and other aspects of cooperation without supporting the building blocks of democracy – education, civil society, the rule of law – is likely to do more harm than good.

So, don’t even the most committed democracies have an obligation to provide aid to democratic initiatives in authoritarian states? This might be called the “democratising” principle: we can justify giving money to non-democracies as long as we can see that it’s helping them to move in the right direction. Support to electoral commissions in countries like Nigeria and Ghana, for example, helped to smooth the first transfer of power in these countries.

Things get even more complicated when considering the situations the most vulnerable citizens of authoritarian states may find themselves in. These might include famine, civil war or a deadly disease outbreak. The current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is an excellent example.

Why should they suffer because of their repressors’ actions? We might call this the “humanitarian” principle: it’s OK to give aid money to non-democracies as long as it’s used to help those in desperate need rather than to strengthen the government.

Of course, the moment we move away from a focus on democracy to recognise that democratic states have a number of goals, including promoting their own safety and well being, things get ever murkier.

Motives behind giving aid

Aid has never just been about helping people. It’s also, realistically, about gaining influence in the world and exercising soft power. Providing aid money can generate valuable access and generate a sympathetic cohort of people who can be called upon to further down the line.

This might be called the “self-serving” principle: we should only send aid money to authoritarian states when it promises to strengthen our international standing in the long-run. Note: this might not be quite as selfish an argument as it first seems, because what better way is there to increase a donor country’s ability to promote democracy abroad in the future, than to expand the international influence of democratic states?

Democrats might also not want to apply “democracy” criteria to aid if they think that this will make it harder for other countries to economically develop. For example, if it is true that in some contexts strong authoritarian governments will be more stable than weak democracies, it might make sense to tolerate them on the basis that they are more likely to achieve development and lift people out of poverty – an argument that’s often made in reference to Paul Kagame’s Rwanda.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
EPA/Abir Sultan

This might be called the “one thing at a time” principle: democracies should give money to non-democracies whenever it’s clear that authoritarian rule has a better chance of improving ordinary citizens’ standard of living.

As with self-interest, this argument can loop back to strengthening global democracy in the long-run. This is because many researchers have argued, effective national infrastructure, a strong economy and respect for the rule of law are required to facilitate a smooth process of democratic consolidation.

It turns out, then, that you don’t have to be someone who doesn’t believe in democracy, or promoting it abroad, to want to give aid money to authoritarian regimes. Instead, committed democrats may have good reasons not to want to channel all of their aid budgets to other democratic states. Even if you reject one or two of the arguments above, you may have to accept others.

I believe that aid should be the way democracies try and make the world a better place for others, so I am unpersuaded by the “self-serving” principle. I also think the empirical evidence suggests that, on balance, democracies are better placed to generate and maintain economic growth. So, I reject the “one thing at a time” principle.

However, I do find the “democratising” and “humanitarian” arguments compelling. So, if I got to run a democracy for a day, I would send aid money to some authoritarian regimes – but only under tight conditions, and even then I would want to regularly review the situation. Otherwise democratic donors risk falling into the trap of aiding authoritarian governments not out of principle, but out of habit.

What about you? Come and join in the debate on 31 January, and let us know how you think aid money should be spent …


Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of Democracy in Africa.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

One thought on “Why there’s a case for giving foreign aid to authoritarian regimes

  1. No one is under any illusion that those who run authoritarian governments are in power for themselves and their immediate circle; ordinary citizens are in the circumstances left with a simple choice, put up or shut up. Accordingly, foreign aid is an act of charity, it is not an endorsement of authoritarianism.

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