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No Aid for You: (The Effects of) Placing Restrictions on Foreign Aid

October 20, 2011

British PM David Cameron | Source: Reuters

Headlines in the news lately have featured Britain’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell and Prime Minister David Cameron declaring that the UK will no longer send aid to countries that restrict or criminalize the behavior of the gay community. Uproar over their statements is largely due to the concern that cutting aid will affect the poor who benefit from the development programs/aid relief, and will leave government officials who implement the programs unscathed.

As of now, Britain has only declared aid reductions for Malawi (a cut of £19 million so far). Last year in Malawi, two men announced their engagement; they were arrested and sentenced to 14 years of prison with hard labor. They were then released, in part from international outcry that the punishment was overly harsh (noting that the judge sought to make an example of their case to other gays). Other countries, such as Ghana and Uganda, are under scrutiny for homophobic measures as well. For African countries with large HIV/AIDS populations, such as Ghana, homophobic stigmas make HIV/AIDS treatment and awareness more difficult. 

Malawi’s actions have violated international and intra-continental human rights treaties. As a result of anti-gay incidents throughout the world, the UK has been taking an active role in gay rights both within the UK and abroad. A UK government spokesman defended Britain’s actions:

to [combat] violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in all circumstances, in this country and abroad. […] We only provide aid directly to governments when we are satisfied that they share our commitments to reduce poverty and respect human rights.

However, this has also received some backlash, as critics equate Britain’s new policy with cultural imperialism toward their former colony of Malawi, citing the previous imposition of sodomy laws during colonization.

Which begs the question: what motivating factors are behind foreign aid? Giving aid out of pure altruism is highly unlikely in a time where developing countries are the next big markets. Historically, diplomacy and maintaining a certain level of international civility has guided aid allotments. In July 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed a similar problem (a bill sought to reduce aid to countries with terrorist connections and those that did not meet anti-corruption standards), saying that cutting aid to foreign governments will not help people in need of aid. Recently, large influxes of aid are a result of natural disasters, seeking to provide some relief to people as they rebuild.

Obviously, some choices of aid funding have been derived from how one country views another’s political and cultural beliefs. In this case, the impact of Britain’s decision is two-fold.  First, Britain must suggest programs to target education, economic growth, and health that will ensure that the poor will continue to receive aid. While the UK’s decision is controversial (as are the homophobic policies prompting said decision), perhaps it will encourage more direct investment in programs for the poor instead of relying on corrupt governments and bureaucracies to implement anti-poverty initiatives. Secondly, Britain has also announced plans to distribute aid every three months, as opposed to annually, in order to have more control over the flow of aid to countries whose practices they may disagree with. This allows a faster response time in the case of any human rights violations, but could also lead to budgeting issues for those countries when deciding which programs to implement and setting achievement goals/timelines.

Placing restrictions on foreign aid as the result of a country’s political and/or cultural policies is treacherous ground. Reducing human rights violations would be one positive effect, but ensuring that people do not suffer without aid is problematic, especially if a country refuses to change its policies. On the other hand, this begins the argument surrounding the role of culture and its relativity in international relationships and as a foundation for determining aid recipients. If treacherous ground is not an acceptable outcome, perhaps there is still middle ground that can be found.

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