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Should we be concerned over America’s re-politicisation of aid?

Image: Business Insider UK

In recent weeks the Trump administration has been criticised for threatening to cut aid to countries that it sees as not towing “its line”. First during the United Nations assembly in response to a draft resolution demanding countries comply to the 1967 UN Security council resolutions on Jerusalem.  This resolution itself in response to a decision by the United States to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, followed by moving its embassy there. These decisions overturned decades of foreign policy, the results of which are likely to be felt for years to come in the peace process.


Many countries, even close allies such as Britain, criticised this move and publicly stated they would not follow suit. Following a security council resolution by 14-1 supporting a return to the original 1967 resolution which was vetoed by the US. The UN general assembly enacted a similar but non-binding vote, which would in theory represent world opinion. In response to this the United States ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley warned members in letters addressed to the majority of council members that the President saw votes as “personal” and would be “taking names” of countries that voted against it. Employing bullying tactics even somewhat unusual for the UN. The administration then took this line further, with the president suggesting that countries could lose out on aid packages if they voted against the wishes of the United States.

Considering that US aid remains one of the biggest international donor programs in the world this was seen as likely to have disproportionate sway on countries reliant on this aid to support domestic programs. This was reflected in the general assembly vote, of which there were 35 abstentions, most of which were low income countries that could not afford to run the risk of the US withholding aid packages. Despite this most countries in the vote took a strong stance against this pressure, suggesting a weakness to the method. This then occurred a second time when the US used the threat of withholding aid to Pakistan, this time in response to what it views as the country’s weakness in combating terrorist groups such as “the Taliban”.  With the US considering withholding $255 million in Aid. This enacted a much stronger response and a scramble for Pakistan as it looked to appear as though it was adequately  responding to the wishes of the US.

Whatever you views on the validity of the allegations that the United States has made against other countries. Surely we should be concerned over the fact that the world’s largest donor of foreign aid seems increasingly willing to politicise the money it gives. While it has more or less always been the case that for many countries a large portion of aid donated comes under condition. As countries have historically felt that they  should in some way receive benefit from aid given to poorer nations. Such as through stipulating that countries must buy donor goods exclusively. Even today, aid programs throughout continue to contain clauses stipulating that recipients must open their markets in certain ways to allow foreign competition, or in some cases exploitation by multinational corporations. Yet in recent years this model has come under increasing criticism suggesting that there was hope of a more genuine system of aid delivery. One which was intended for humanitarian causes without stipulating countries alter domestic or foreign policy. It would seem therefore that by rallying to the cause of an “America First” policy in his attitudes to foreign aid, Trump runs the risk of turning the tide back towards a system in which countries feel that there is no such thing as “a free lunch”. More concerning is that given the fact that many countries cannot afford to go without this funding, there will certainly be those that will have to no choice other than to “tow the line”. Ignoring the fact that this is most certainly already the case for many countries, the suggestion of a intensification of this systems seems highly alarming.

Finally, while it is possible that what the president of the United States has stated in his twitter account was empty rhetoric, we cannot pretend that it exists in a vacuum without any repercussions. Especially given the ways in which populations in developed countries seem increasingly receptive to his views, helped in part by a bombardment of them from mass media outlets.

Therefore it seems that we should look to be more critical of countries that are able to puppet those that they support with aid, as recipient countries have very few tools in their arsenal to resist these tactics. In spite of this, for the most part it seems that countries and NGOs have appeared resistant to the threat of aid being cut so far. Yet, In the long run it is unclear how they will stand up to this and it will certainly be those most vulnerable that will have to ultimately pay the price for these decisions.