Monday, 17 June 2013

Moving on from 'Northern chauvinism'? Traditional aid donors and rising powers

By Musab Younis

In recent years, a series of studies have looked candidly at foreign aid in the context of power, geopolitics and the domestic interests of donor governments.

Derek Fee’s How to Manage an Aid Exit Strategy brought a critique of growing aid dependence – which was seen as linked to the strategic interests of rich states, shoring up structures of dependency that had their origins in the late colonial era – to bear on a strategic vision for bringing about an 'aid exit'. Fee’s work built a number of critical analyses of aid which have emerged in the last five years, including Yash Tandon’s Ending Aid Dependence and Roger Ridell’s Does Foreign Aid Really Work?. These two studies, though they identify a common problem, represent quite different perspectives on the politics and power of aid.

Emma Mawdsley’s From Recipients to Donors recently drew our attention to the ways in which ‘emerging’ donors like India and Brazil, as well as ‘re-emerging’ donors like Russia, are weakening the authority of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. And influential studies like Deborah Brautigam’s The Dragon’s Gift have added much-needed nuance and evidence to the way that China’s aid to African states is talked about.

In this context – a new frankness about the purposes of aid and an increased willingness to apply rigorous analytical tools to the discussion of such aid – Rosalind Eyben’s new policy brief on the relationships between old and new donors makes for instructive reading. There now remains little doubt that the OECD’s hegemony on aid provision, otherwise termed development cooperation, is over.

As part of our programme on Rising Powers at IDS we’ve been running a series of seminars on this very topic: looking at how (and why) new donors like the BRICS are choosing to engage in the 'development' field.

Eyben’s brief, 'Building Relationships in Development Cooperation: Traditional Donors and the Rising Powers', is based on anthropological research conducted by scholars who attended key forums in which ‘old’ and ‘new’ donors have come into contact, particularly the various High Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness. As such, it gives us a valuable ethnographic addition to a body of writing on aid that tends to be dominated by either theoretical or hyper-empirical extremes.

Her key finding is that emotionally-charged identities matter in international discussions on aid, affecting how participants see themselves and how they are seen by others.

'Identity is fundamental to the notion of South–South Cooperation with its roots in the Third World and the Non-Aligned Movement from the Cold War,' she states. 'In contrast, traditional donors do not always recognise that they may be reaffirming their old imperialist identity when they block Southern-led initiatives.'

Eyben highlights the failed 2012 attempt by Northern states to limit the mandate of UNCTAD, a UN organisation that has traditionally been seen to represent a Southern voice. She suggests that such behaviour – what I think we can call ‘Northern chauvinism’ – is not only damaging to present North-South relations, but arcs back in the memories of some participants to a period of international relations in which vast populations were deemed flatly unworthy of participation in decisions.

That international discussions are imbued with historically-formed identities and perceptions is not a new concept in the academic study of international relations. However, there has been remarkably little discussion of it in the context of aid and development (Patty Gray’s work on Russia is a notable exception).

Rosalind Eyben’s key points relate not simply to finessing existing approaches in international forums. She makes a case instead for Northern governments seriously re-evaluating their approach to interactions at an international level. As such, this concise brief adds to a growing literature on North-South interaction – marked this year by Vijay Prashad’s superb study The Poorer Nations – in which a largely submerged history is beginning to be uncovered, with crucial implications for political practice.