A Leftist Case for Foreign Aid

After years of right-wing onslaughts, a huge number of USAID programs will be dismantled by the Trump administration. But the left has been lukewarm in its support of aid. It is incumbent upon the left to show solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable by insisting on increases in aid while not losing sight for the long struggle for structural change. 

In the US, the agglomeration of forces that political strategist Chris Lehane famously termed a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” consisting of foundations, radio broadcasts and well-resourced lobby organizations, has long been at war against foreign aid policies. Whenever the topic of aid comes up on talk radio — a backbone of the movement — hostilities towards the public sector, as well as anxieties about international organizations and globalization, quickly fill the airwaves. For many on the far right, the United Nations is scheming to curtail US sovereignty — or as radio host Alex Jones puts it, mounting “a quiet invasion of the USA.”

The general public may not share such extreme views on foreign aid, though some surely ask, in more hushed tones, how their government can spend millions of dollars on road construction in some war-torn country far away while potholes proliferate in, say, Lexington or Indianapolis. However obscure these arguments of the right may sound, they have exerted a noticeable influence over more mainstream policy debates. According to its current proposed budget, the Trump administration intends to cut its diplomacy and foreign aid budget by 32 percent, though such sweeping cuts may be hard to implement.

The situation does not look better internationally: In the UK, leaders of the Leave campaign, promising to crack down on aid “fat cats,” have zeroed in on the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 percent of its national income on aid. It’s a goal that only a handful of countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, have managed to realize. Germany has increased its aid budget, but has done so mostly to stop migration into Europe from the areas that receive new investments in aid, as if conceding that a focus on poverty-alleviation does not work, or is not worth it.

Having worked in the Sub-Saharan African countries of Ghana, Liberia and South Sudan, I find myself concerned about these political developments. Much of my initial work on the continent was as a researcher, gathering anthropological data on the cultural changes experienced by Liberian refugees returning from exile in Ghana.

An old UNHCR tent, repurposed as a wall for a small business.

The camp where my research subjects had stayed in Ghana made an indelible impression on me. Located in Ghana’s Central Region, it exuded an aura of what I can only call international abandonment. When dragging oneself through the camp, which can become strenuous in the tropical climate of the region, one gets the sense that the location had once been the site of some international solidarity, however flawed. What soon becomes equally clear, though, is that the international humanitarian community, perennially cash-strapped and pulled from one catastrophe to another, even more urgent, has since moved on. The camp resembles an archaeological site — once buzzing with the activity of international organizations, it now lies silent, forgotten. By the time I was conducting my research in 2010 and 2011, disused billboards and bulletin boards from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and US State Department dotted the landscape. Pinned to one wall was a faded sheet of paper announcing the suspension of the family reunification component of the US State Department’s refugee admission program.

Fresher banners from the UNHCR listed the few services that remained available and the names of people who still qualified for resettlement interviews, and who therefore still received some attention from the outside world. Access to sanitation was lacking, with decrepit bathroom facilities forcing many residents to relieve themselves in a nearby area that was referred to as “bush” or the “gulf.” There was a primary school, build with the help of the UN despite a lack of proper funding, but even by the reckoning of the UNHCR’s own Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, refugees had been “left to run the school themselves.” Many in the camp, long familiar with the pangs of deep hunger, could remember where the World Food Programme had handed out its food rations in what seemed like a bygone era.

UNHCR bulletin board.

Refugees found aid no more forthcoming on their return to Liberia, one of the world’s poorest nations. Even though my informants persevered in the face of their obstacles, they saw this lack of aid as a shameful abandonment by both their own government and international organizations. A refugee woman, who had left Liberia when she was a small child, spoke to me about the UN after her repatriation:

They don’t even care. Because as far as they are concerned, you are back home. So what you do with your life? They don’t want to know. As far as they are concerned, they give you a returnee package, and that’s it.

The woman received 350 USD to get herself back on her feet in Liberia, and an additional 250 USD for her child. The sums represented an increase over previous pay-outs. In the words of one of my informants, “Can you imagine that previously a refugee was given 5 Dollars for repatriation? But because of the agitation and advocacy, they have increased it.” The size of the aid payments looks especially good when one considers that the average citizen in a high-income country gave about 27 USD in total aid to poorer countries in 2010. The recipients were comparatively lucky, too: Liberians who came to Ghana after the war ended in 2003, fleeing not war but the wreckage left in its wake, received nothing when they repatriated.

Further into my time as a researcher and aid worker, I stayed in Liberia during the initial stages of the Ebola crisis and in the South Sudanese capital Juba, helping to map hunger and its causes in a country gripped by civil war. I often hoped that the international community would step up with a huge increase in aid. I have also found myself often ambivalent about my participation in aid work, a feeling shared by many in the field: Am I unwittingly contributing to making some of the world’s biggest problems even worse?

In places that received aid, locals voiced criticisms of aid, as well as the hope that aid would have more lasting impacts in their lives. But I found few who dismissed the whole idea of aid; few echoing those global opinion leaders who say or imply that aid should be abolished altogether. Locals largely supported the basic institution of aid — many of them, perhaps, out of an intuitive understanding of the harm that would be caused by withdrawing aid. During my most recent rotation in Sub-Saharan Africa, which brought me to the South Sudanese capital of Juba, I spent a lazy Saturday in one of the city’s makeshift coffee shops and struck up a conversation with a 29-year-old IT student, who bemoaned the widespread unemployment in his country. He described the role of international organizations as follows:

The NGOs, they are providing aid, with the basics, like food and shelter.… If they stop, people will suffer. Definitely people will suffer from hunger.… They are already suffering, but they will suffer more because they abandoned their normal jobs due to the security. They are not working because war is destructive to their normal duties.

Critiques of Aid

Notwithstanding the sober assessments of many affected by grinding poverty—the real experts in a situation like this—aid remains unpopular. Like many aid workers, I gravitate towards leftist circles. Though foreign aid as a policy field seems closely connected to wealth redistribution—a pet cause for the left—most on the left have not participated in the aid debates. Some thinkers have even been critical of aid.

The critiques of aid programs coming from all political sides amount to a perfect storm, undermining broad ideological support for aid. In some ways, mainstream centrist critiques and more niche leftist critiques have been similar. Both see aid primarily as a tool to increase the dependency of poor countries on rich one, and therefore as a cause of poverty. The more mainstream commentators see aid as fostering reliance on a global public sector that is accountable to neither consumers nor voters, and that takes its marching orders mostly from feeble and easily distracted do-gooders. Dambissa Moyo, for instance, suggests that the private sector and free enterprise are the ways out of the poverty trap in Africa. For proponents of the World System Theory, on the other hand, aid is foremost a consolidator of global capitalism. As such, aid is drawing poor countries into a worldwide system in which they are only delivering raw resources to the richer countries at the center of the global system, to see value added through manufacturing activities.

According to these critics, aid is structurally very hard, if not impossible, to reform.

Though not all commentators claim that aid should be, as Moyo suggests, phased out in a five-year plan, much of the commentary depicts aid as a nefarious “Cartel of Good Intentions” unworthy of political support. Wherever one stands on the debate, I am convinced of one thing: Any analysis that finds aid unworthy of our political energies should be supported by exact and highly persuasive evidence, since those mostly directly impacted by the situation—the global poor themselves—continue to ask for material assistance from the international community.

Another critique of aid that has gained some traction is that of Arturo Escobar, who argues that languages and discourses have grouped together people with very diverse histories, based largely on their need for development and outside intervention. Since this worldview informs all that aid organizations do, aid cannot escape its colonial inclination to foster dependency in those who receive it. From this perspective, the attempts of anthropologists working with aid organizations to adapt global programs to local perspectives, conditions and histories will prove vain.

Such points help us in recognizing how fundamentally our world continues to be shaped by colonialism. Many current, seemingly unrelated political events are connected by the legacy of colonialism — racial tensions flaring up in the United

States, South Africa and Brazil, civil wars among ethnic groups arbitrarily grouped together into nation states in Africa or the Middle East.

When we say we are living in a postcolonial world, we should not understand this to mean that no political events before the formal dissolution of colonial relationships continue to impact us, nor that local actors lack agency and responsibility. Rather, colonialism as a historical institution has uniquely shaped the current world order to the benefit of a few. During the colonial period, European powers held people and markets throughout the world captive while deliberately transforming the world economy to increase its estimated share of global GDP from twenty to sixty percent.

Today, formerly colonized nations are gaining power, and the world is growing more multipolar. As industrialized societies are becoming more diverse, emerging voices urge them to acknowledge and make amends for the colonial past. Such newfound (or at least newly recognized) voices are also aiming at the colonial aesthetics of the aid sector, for example through blogs that ridicule the “white savior complex” of volunteer humanitarian missions that too often neither edify the travelers nor confer tangible benefits on the communities they serve.

A greater awareness of history might help aid organizations in recognizing the people their work is supposed to be helping — distinct groups with discrete histories, and not the interchangeable and ahistorical masses from which humanitarian aid workers have too often fashioned their identities. It’s a tendency that the anthropologist Liisa Malkki sees as the Achilles’ heel of humanitarian aid. Depriving entire people of history and seeing them only in relation to outside measures of progress is another relic of colonialism.

I, too, have been made uncomfortable by the colonial aesthetics of my aid work — when, for example, I’ve lived in relative prosperity in places of scarcity. While many aid workers have risked much, and even died, in the line of duty, they almost inevitably enjoy greater security and comfort than the people they are supposed to serve. Aid workers are generally evacuated if crisis strikes. This privilege comes with being an internationally mobile person with a Western passport. Its traces in colonial history are evident.

Aid organizations have shown some commitment to addressing the underlying factors that contribute to these colonial aesthetics. A few have adopted “participatory action research” methodologies that seek to capture local voices and make them active participants in designing projects. But a lot more could be done, as well, for example by creating hierarchies in which local staff receive more pay and power than best-intentioned foreign interlopers.

Towards Global Welfare?

As in most matters of public policy, there are many shades of gray when it comes to aid. Yet whatever legitimate grievances one may have, it is likely that a removal of aid will reverse important humanitarian gains with no guarantees for long-term betterment. Immediate impacts would be devastating for the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Arguments against foreign aid bring to mind historical leftist objections to the welfare state. Opposing foreign aid as insufficiently emancipatory is a bit like arguing against the institutions of the welfare state on the grounds that they maintain social hierarchies and keep the domestic peace, as well, by extension, as the capitalist order. Karl Marx himself criticized the basic institutions of the welfare state in his Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, and while the official Marxist or leftist cannon has not absorbed this critique as dogma on domestic policy, it proves persistent when we talk about foreign aid.

It is true that welfare state institutions such as Social Security or food stamps cannot solve the contradictions of capitalism. But as long as these contradictions exist, withdrawing welfare will hurt the most vulnerable. As opposed to, say, banks, or the military-industrial complex, welfare state institutions like Social Security and food stamps do not appear to be primarily what stands in the way of transforming societies. Should we oppose them while waiting for larger social change?

After all, welfare institutions have managed to achieve important goals, such as significantly reducing poverty among the elderly. In large part because of the introduction of Social Security in the US, the official poverty rate among those 65 and older declined from 35 to 10 percent between 1960 and 1995. Welfare institutions have accomplished such goals in spite of constant attacks from the right.

If some scholars concern themselves with the question of whether the world’s most downtrodden people, like refugees, are made dependent by humanitarian aid, this may be a sign that we’re seeing the nascent contours of a global welfare state emerge. As the forced displacement scholars Allen and Turton point out, such debates become similar to “those pertaining to welfare ‘malingerers’ in wealthy countries.” They conclude, as I do based on my research in West Africa, that

(a)ny displaced people in northeast Africa who become genuinely dependent on relief agencies are unlikely to survive long. The majority of forced migrants have either received no assistance from humanitarian agencies or, where they have, this assistance has been an additional bonus rather than the basis of their livelihood.

Also like domestic welfare, foreign aid has contributed to remarkable successes. Since 2000, malaria infections in sub-Saharan Africa have been cut in half.

Between the 1870s and the 1970s, the great famines killed between 1,45 million and 16,64 million people around the world, at an average of about 927,810 people every single year. Since 1980, that number has been reduced to an estimated 75,217 people per year. Polio has been reduced 99 percent. Fatalities among pregnant women dropped by nearly half between 1990 and 2010.

Of course, none of these successes are sufficient on their own. Though the direst predictions on the outcomes in HIV/Aids—for example that the virus would kill half of all young adults in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana—have been averted (largely because of a comparably ambitious international response), 17.1 million people still live without access to antiretroviral therapy, according to UNAIDS.

Even with sufficient funding, aid programs, which operate in fragile societies and in the midst of conflict, have also caused damage. Reports of negative impacts are often accompanied by calls to abolish such programs altogether. It is an atmosphere fostered by the canon of criticisms delivered from all kinds of ideological directions. This creates something domestic commentators have called a “Starving the Beast” dynamic, whereby public institutions are underfunded and become inefficient, finally losing public support. Unstable funding cycles make institutional learning very difficult.

So far, I have drawn the picture of aid as a necessary evil, constituting a politics that is not visionary, but must be endured to meet the basic needs of very vulnerable people. But aid may do more than “just” meeting very basic needs. Even a noted critic of aid, anthropologist James Ferguson, expresses measured optimism when describing the international labor standards that were furthered through the aid-funded International Labor Organization (ILO), as well as direct cash transfer programs. The latter are payments to individuals and families with no strings attached, and have become common in Southern Africa. They could, in the very long run, contribute to something resembling a universal right to basic income in an age when vast swaths of humanity are no longer meaningfully integrated into the capitalist system of production, often because they live far from the centers of wealth or perform labor made obsolete through automation.

Unfortunately, much aid has managed neither to reduce poverty nor to solve social problems. Even today, too much aid (though not as much as during the Cold War era) is given to countries with the goal of forging alliances. How can we double down on our criticism of aid infused by neoliberal politics while leaving life-saving institutions like the Global Fund against Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria a free hand? Can we both support international bureaucrats with track records of progressive experimentation, as depicted by Ferguson, and still object to aid that amounts to little more than rent-seeking by rich countries?

Aid and strong states: A hopeful combination

It has become almost become a cliché to point out that China has used markets, rather than aid, to lift millions out of extreme poverty, arguing in effect that free markets are the key to reducing poverty. What’s missing from such accounts of Chinese progress is the importance of the strong state monopoly in most sectors, which not only keeps the peace but also brings with it strong state interventions, such as tariffs and the cultivation of diaspora networks that can tap into global market potentials.

If not only the most recent Asian history, but also the somewhat more distant Western history, can serve as prologue, we must conclude that central planning is indispensible to building the kind of infrastructure that creates value-adding production chains. The US electrified its West through central planning. Germany instituted tariffs to protect nascent industries. France had mercantilism. China opened up its economy at its own pace, avoiding immediate exposure to global markets. But such centralized interventions are rarer in Sub-Saharan Africa.

What role could foreign aid play in all of this? Contrary to the claims of critics of aid, the Chinese example also shows that such a careful and independent development agenda can be pursued while a country receives aid. While China followed its development trajectory, it did indeed receive aid, though much less as a percentage of GDP than its African peers. Among others, the World Food Programme (WFP) was active there. China has managed to more than halve its rate of undernourishment since 1990. In 2005, the World Food Programme stopped its food aid to China. Within the same year, China also became the world’s third-biggest donor of food aid, though the Chinese government and WFP still have a memorandum of understanding to work together in reducing hunger in regions excluded from economic growth.

Nowadays, China is a major force promoting South-South cooperation, partly through its participation in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. While South-South cooperation, when it happens between dictatorial governments, may be problematic, such cooperation also shows that aid can move away from its Eurocentric roots. Generally, the Chinese model, which is rife with human rights violations, may not serve as a useful model for the future, but it does provide interesting analytic insights into the interactions between aid and growth.

Foreign aid, just a drop in a vast ocean of inequalities

We have to keep in mind that aid is profoundly visible both in Western countries, where workers must constantly advertise it to continue raising funds, and also in poor countries, where organizations put up banners to advertise their contributions to projects. But contrary to popular opinion, which consistently overestimates how much of the budget is dedicated to it, foreign aid represents a relatively small fraction of budgets. In one poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average respondent guessed that aid makes up about a quarter the US federal budget, when in reality merely one percent or less of the federal budget is spent on aid.

Aid also forms only a small component of the interactions between the worlds of the rich and poor — a realization by which claims of the damage wrought by aid, either through its undermining economic innovation or bringing poorer countries into the world system on disadvantageous terms, may be put into perspective. Most of the global flow of money does not end up benefitting poor countries, especially in Africa. According to a recent estimate by a coalition of NGOs, 161.6 billion USD flowed into Africa in 2015, if one combines aid, remittances, loans and a few other sources of income. At the same time, even more money—203 billion USD—flowed out of Africa, mainly through corporate disbursements, often illegal, and through the costs imposed by climate change. Aid invested in the form of grants, not loans, stood at only 19 billion USD.

Given these discrepancies, most aid happens, as a Guardian article put it, “in reverse,” from poor to rich countries. Whatever remains of official aid does not amount to very much compared with global expenditures in support of war, financial bailouts or fossil fuel extraction. Even if aid needs critique for improvement, we would be well-advised to focus our criticism not solely on one of the few undertakings that actually brings resources into poor regions, but also on the economic policies and underhanded practices that take such resources out. In the absence of attention to the global mining sector and the trade in arms, aid-centered debates on global poverty might be moot.

The dual challenge: Insisting on more aid while working for structural change

To reduce poverty, the structural economic issues giving rise to inequality must be addressed head-on. Westerners, especially those who have the leisure to engage in political activism, should challenge an international system that puts profit over people, delivers weapons into the hands of warlords around, and fills the coffers of resource-extraction companies while leaving rural people from Liberia to Brazil destitute. In a world where global wealth is growing exponentially, it is neither convincing nor morally conscionable to tell the most destitute that wealth will gradually trickle down to them.

As long as we are collectively failing to change the structures that allow extreme material scarcity in a world of plenty, aid must continue to ameliorate some of the worst shortfalls. To resort to a medical analogy, we could also consider aid as pain-management: As long as we are unable or unwilling to properly treat the ailing patient, we must insist that aid will not be cut, and should even ask for more.

Some, though not all, of the criticism of aid appears to stem from a false dichotomy between service and advocating for political change — implying that finding long-term strategies to change the structures that produce poverty absolves our obligation to find solutions for the poor in the here and now.

To create a more humane world, we have to constantly renew our commitments to both service and activism. This is not always an easy task, but some organizations have already centered their programming on both advocacy and service. Doctors without Borders is known for bringing services to some of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, but the organization also tries to avoid creating alibis for the rich and powerful, as we see in its refusal to take donations from the EU in protest of European policy of stopping migrants from leaving Turkey. The organization for a longer time had stopped accepting all USAID, explaining that “the US government is often involved in many crises to which MSF responds.” Smaller NGOs might not be able to afford what MSF has done, but could still maintain a critical distance from the rich and powerful.

These are difficult moral balancing acts, in which service and advocacy need not be seen as mutually exclusive. Integrating advocacy is not the only way to deliver aid, and cannot, of course, guarantee perfect success in addressing poverty and its causes, but in this world of moral ambiguity and crisis, it is nonetheless compelling.

Global poverty presents not only moral, but also intellectual challenges. One thing is simple and clear, though: Trump’s aid cuts will cause humanitarian havoc. That is why the left should stand in solidarity with some of the world’s most vulnerable people and fight those cuts at every turn — while, of course, simultaneously maintaining focus on the long struggle for structural change. We owe it to the Liberian refugees stranded in Ghana, among others.

Jonas Ecke has worked with refugees in Ghana, Liberia and Germany. He seeks both practical policy solutions and movements aimed at changing the underlying structural causes of poverty and displacement.