Policy Paper: Foreign aid threatened by the increase of security interests

Security and development have always been an odd couple, often interlinked but rarely mixed. This intertwined relation was recognized by the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan (1997-2006), in his widely well-known quote: “The human family will not enjoy development without security, will not enjoy security without development” (Report of the UN Secretary-General, 2005).

The first benchmark in terms of allocation of foreign aid in order to promote development can be identified in the Marshall Plan undertook by the Americans after the Second World War. The mobilization of billions of dollars to rebuild a broken Europe was a human-centric action, but an underlying motive was the United States fear of fragile European countries falling into communism. It was in American national security interest to aid European governments to rebuild their societies under USA’s sphere of influence.    

In contrast, there have been other key milestones that have separated security from development to focus solely on the latter. The year 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the commitment made by high-income countries to allocate 0.7% of its GNI for the development of low-income countries. That resolution approved by the United Nations General Assembly ignited a history of international aid tasked to battle worldwide poverty and inequality. The initiative has yielded successes and failures. Despite collective effort, most countries are yet to fulfill the 0.7% target (OCDE ODA, 2020) which raises questions about the commitments made by the global powers. However, in contrast, foreign aid has galvanized funding to vaccinate hundreds of millions of children around the world which has almost eradicated some diseases such as polio or smallpox. Thanks to the afore mentioned states monetary contributions, it has been possible to strengthen health and education systems, to empower girls and women and to support local business and initiatives, among other successes (Seery, 2020).

However, over the past two decades, developmental aid might be facing a different phenomenon that is transforming the relationship between security and development. Some analysts have coined this new trend as: the securitization of foreign aid. According to them, it occurs, for instance, “when donors increasingly justify aid in terms of national or international security, when they provide the highest levels of assistance to specific countries and sectors based on security imperatives, when security actors (such as military forces) deliver significant amounts of aid, and when donor governments create new institutional units within their aid agencies or new interdepartmental coordination mechanisms based on security-related motives” (Grävingholt, 2016: 3).

The turning points towards securitization of foreign aid: terrorism, nationalism, and migration

Since the 90’s, Western countries (occasionally allied with UN support) have militarily intervened in scenarios such as the Balkan War and in many conflicts or unstable situations across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Due to these actions, aid instruments have become increasingly intertwined with complex international operations that addressed development and security simultaneously. The catalyst for this notion was the 9/11 terrorist attacks which placed the concern about fragile and conflict-affected states at the top of national agendas in order to confront what was coined “the War on Terror”.

Nowadays, the fear of global terrorism, the rise of far-right political parties with an anti-migration discourse and the rebirth of a nationalism that demands that politicians focus their work within the national borders are the main causes that have inclined countries to sacrifice the development goals at the altar of security. We could distinguish this new approach of justifying aid spending to the benefit of national security in the different national strategic policies pointed out in the OECD’s 2019 Development Co-operation Report. For example, the current US policy framework explicitly mentions “the value of foreign assistance to American security and prosperity”. Similarly, the 2015 United Kingdom Aid Strategy calls for “tackling the great global challenges […] all of which also directly threaten British interests” (OECD 2019:34). In other words, foreign aid is rational and should be encouraged when it serves the benefit of a countries self-interest.

Mexico-US border

Further examples can be seen in the EU Trust Fund (EUTF) for Africa which was launched in 2015. It had the goal of tackling the root causes of irregular migration in origin and transit regions in Africa through the improvement of migration controls, migrant returns, and readmissions. Roughly 90% of a €3.1 billion budget was financed by the European Development Fund (Voitzwinkler, 2017). Likewise, “The Southern Border Program” implemented by the Mexican government in 2014 and part funded by USA´s foreign aid budget. The goal of this program was to tackle the flows of people moving towards the USA across the southern border with Mexico (Arriola Vega, 2017). Although, the program included long-term projects to improve the lives of migrants and those living on the border, there was significant American pressure for its speedy implementation which neglected plans to instill real societal change in the regions. A clear focus around enforcement and security consequently meant that the border has been militarized (Castañeda, 2015). 

Demilitarisation of aid and empowerment of aid agencies

The tendency for securitization of aid has two main risks. The first, as we have seen, is the diversion of aid to military and security spending which muddies the water with a self-interest fight against poverty or inequality. Therefore, under-developed countries that are not in the spotlight of major donor countries geopolitical plans might eventually suffer severe underfunding for the benefits of donor´s short-term security and foreign policy concerns. In fact, studies shown that the flow of aid moves increasingly to conflict affected fragile states, especially those invaded by Western troops, (like Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria) as well as other countries where terrorists are thought to operate freely (such as Pakistan) (Grävingholt, 2016: 246).

Secondly, aid given for political reasons is less effective than other types of aid. Despite year on year increases in developmental aid, there is a growing concern that, if not used properly it may not be utilized effectively.  According to Axel Dreher, Vera Z. Eichenauer, and Kai Gehring, data shows that “if donors are motivated purely by self-interest, their allocation decision might not take into account the way the recipient uses the aid” and, consequently, “donors may then fail to include growth-promoting policy conditions or waive them in case of non-compliance” (Dreher et al, 2018). Moreover, they emphasize that politically motivated allocation of aid “may result in the approval of lower-quality aid projects in favored countries to the detriment of more promising projects elsewhere”.

To tackle these challenges, demand is high for national governments to empower their aid agencies, which have been weakened as a result of the growing trend in security driven aid. These agencies should be able to undertake strategies and aid initiatives with independence from the states own foreign policy, geopolitical and security interests. In addition, there should certainly be a demilitarization of aid delivery and for this support to be solely administered by aid agencies and humanitarian institutions.

On the other hand, overall, foreign aid has failed to promote growth in recipient countries. Between 1960 and 2010, wealthy countries gave low GDP countries more than three trillion dollars in developmental aid. As Yuichi Kono and Montinola points out, “the return on this investment has been poor”. For this reason, the international effort should be reoriented to promote open markets, investments in institutions and people, and policy environments supportive of local and foreign entrepreneurship, as they are the main driving forces for promoting growth and development (Adelman, 2017). For countries receiving aid, the dependency on foreign financial support and their vulnerability to be used as a geopolitical tool by major donor states will both start to decrease.

What world do we want our children to inherit?

The notion of “my country first” is gaining more traction all over the world. It seems that this trend will continue to rule state’s decisions for a while, however, despite it being understandable that states expect to obtain benefits from their aid donations, it should not be the conditio sine qua non to decide their national aid strategic policy. Under these circumstances, governments might forget that challenges such as climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2008 economic crisis or the unrelenting terrorist attacks around the globe defy national borders and thus, they threaten humankind´s collective security. For this reason, to focus solely on short-term national security interests can be seen as peril for long-term global security. National security is rapidly becoming common global security. And so, to be able to overcome these challenges, high-income countries have the responsibility to redistribute their wealth to help underdeveloped countries thrive, develop, and grow.

Human rights are often at the forefront of these decisions. Kofi Annan´s words are very poignant but often, the latter part of the quote is missing in which he tells that apart from development, we will “not enjoy security if there is not respect for human rights”. With the predominance of security over development, human rights cannot prosper. Most of the time, prosperity walks hand in hand with well-being, freedoms and of course, security. Our decisions shape the lives of future generations and the opportunities we will be able to create for them irrespective of the country they were born. 


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