To what extent does international aid provide a sticking plaster, rather than a solution, to post-war recovery?

The theory of Good Governance (GG) relies on the belief an effective government builds upon the criteria of transparency and accountability. Moreover, government brings together the formal institutions of the state and their monopoly of legitimate coercive power (Stoker, 1998). The post-colonialism era left many states in a situation of civil war, bankruptcy and corruption, where an alliance of elites controlled the country’s main resources and wealth, which led to persistent inequalities and divisions within a country (Henderson, Stalker, 2000).

Thus, the fragmented state’s incapability to provide security, justice and basic needs, legitimized, in the citizen view, the use of force as not recognizing government’s authority.  The on-going tensions in the Middle-East illustrates how the longer a civil war lasts the more likely an escalation of violence will occur and lead to a spillover effect from a state to region. This in turn might have a significant impact on international peace. Following, post-war recovery donors believed the maintenance of political stability and peace-building process required assistance of the international system in order to limit the threat of a return to violence. This last point is essential, as it highlights the subjective use of foreign aid and need for mutual responsibility of the donor and recipient to apply the basic principles of humanitarian aid: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

This essay will argue contemporary humanitarian aid effectiveness is undermined by the politicization of the process, which is the pursuit of political objectives by humanitarian instruments. As a consequence, this results in the donor’s national interests and security being privileged over recipient’s need. Aid policy would then be determined by selectivity of which state receives aid and on the contrary, the circumvention of some governments.  This concept does not only impacts humanitarian principles, challenges the ethics of donor countries but also has long-term devastating consequences on development strategies. Boone (1996) argues, that instead of supporting development aid can provoke and enhance poverty as directly given to governments ‘that consume aid inflows instead of investing in their country’ (pp-289).  In order to analyze the impact politicized foreign aid had on developing countries Afghanistan and Somalia will be used as case studies. As, they both suffered from complex political fragmentation following a fall of a regime and required impartial assistance. This essay argues, efficient aid should be implemented by a return to classic humanitarianism through the establishment of democracy and good governance and so the likelihood of sustainable peace.

Outline and Literature

Afghanistan and Somalia has been chosen as case studies as they highlight the argument no matter the amount of humanitarian aid the recipient receives, if the institutions are weak and the aid subjective then it will not be incorporated homogeneously to the society.

To begin, intervention is not new and relies on peaceful stability. In order to understand the influence and consequences of politicization on foreign aid during post-war recovery three major concepts of humanitarian aid will be defined: ‘humanitarianism imperative’, impartiality as a component of legitimacy, and the use of conditionality as reward of Good Governance.  First of all, Joanna Macrae, described humanitarianism as ‘designed to mitigate the impact of war’, mainly led by the West (Macrae, pg 7).

Nonetheless, The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross introduced the concept of ‘humanitarian imperative’, which defines the principle of humanity as the right to receive and to give humanitarian assistance (Schweizer, 2004). This point highlights, even though humanitarian aid is imperfect, it is a right and duty to bring assistance to people in need. Furthermore, in order to restore legitimacy of the state it is essential to establish or reform the national government, which often requires impartial cooperation on the ground with local actors. A solution for cooperation and legitimacy has been addressed through the application of conditionality which Nelson and Eglinton (1992) defined as a set of strategies that the donors apply in order to bring in political and economic reforms in the recipient country. It has further been used as a reward for Good Governance and a pressure mechanism for compliance to peace-process. For instance, bilateral donors and UN agencies applied them in post-war recovery of Somalia and Afghanistan.

However, it will be argued first of all, it is not the most appropriate approach to strengthen good governance. Secondly, it often excludes groups from the reconstruction process, which leads to social exclusion and has a negative impact on sustainable peace (Manning, 2010). While in both countries the humanitarian field staff has been criticized for both economic and political reasons. This paper will focus only on the political aspect of international aid as opposed to economical factors because the implementation of growth-promoting activities requires strong political infrastructure.

Additionally, It is worth highlighting, politicized humanitarianism theorists argued classic humanitarianism is faulty as ‘neutrality is only a myth’. Furthermore, O’Brien (2004) and Anderson (1999) point out, neutrality is impossible to obtain as when aid decides to intervene in a conflict it has a political view ’international assistance (…) becomes a part of that context and thus also of the conflict’’ (pp-1). She gave an example of the Sri Lankan government, which considered Tamil-speaking refugees are similar to the Tamil Tigers; in this situation then providing humanitarian aid would also be helping a rebel group. Nonetheless, it has been stated politicization is a violation of the Geneva Conventions on the Laws and Customs of War, and so should respect the principles of impartiality and transparency.

For the reasons discussed above, this paper will support the argument politicization hinders the success of foreign aid following post-war recovery by examining how the use of conditionality in Afghanistan and Somalia was ineffective in influencing the government and was applied even though harmful to the population. Secondly, following this analysis it will be discussed if the political aspect of foreign aid can be neglected by focusing on a bottom-up mobilization through NGO’s. However, this solution will be argued not efficient as to obtain sustainable peace and development the state’s political structure will need to be constructed around the concept of ‘impartiality’, ‘country ownership’ and ‘good governance’.

Links and Case Studies

Since the cold war Afghanistan has been an aid-dependent country as in order to fight the Red Army, and so the communist invasion, the United States had given over $600 million per annum to the country (Giradet, 1998, pg. 118). Moreover, while the communist part of the country equally needed assistance, the US-led aid only focused on one side, the Afghan mujahideen, by supporting them both financially and technically. Following this period of aid flow, another one happened during the civil war in Afghanistan, from 1992 through the end of the Taliban regime in 2001. It will further be argued; the emphasis of foreign aid was not on meeting the basic needs of Afghanistan’s population but on encouraging trade (Fayez, 2013). Similarly, to Afghanistan, Somalia post-cold war suffered from war and famine and the situation did not improve with foreign aid assistance. In fact, it is still considered as the most modern state collapse in the world. Moreover, the famine drew attention of the United Nations on to the Somali civil war in 1992, through the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) however they withdrew in 1994 due to conflict between Somalia and American forces.

Unfortunately, the lack of neutrality and impartiality in foreign assistance to Somalia was most markedly felt following 9/11 and so the beginning of the ‘war on terror’ led by the United States. In fact, the concerns focused on keeping international peace and securitization rather than humanitarian protection of Somali population.  As Bradbury stated (2010) ‘the emphasis on reviving a central government has simply served to perpetuate a violent conflict over control of the state.’ (pp-2)

The situation in Afghanistan and Somalia are similar and support Easterly (2002) statement of foreign aid, which argues ‘the tragedy of aid’, is mainly due to a lack of accountability and management. Furthermore, due to the difficulty to collaborate with weak state framework and infrastructures often lead NGOs to endorse the role of providing security from a bottom-up mobilization rather than acting through a government in order reaching the population directly (DeMars, 1996: 81).  Nonetheless, they can undermine the state’s responsibility to deal with the crisis as well as aggravate the issue by not providing equal assistance to different groups.

Arguments and counterarguments

When analyzing the effectiveness of international aid, one has to consider specific tools of the process such as conditionality. As stated above, conditionality is the use of ‘bargaining aid’ in orders to reform the recipient’s country policy, and is argued to be a major support for increased living standards and development (Montinola, 2007).  

However, the situation in Afghanistan challenges this perspective as conditionality has been used mainly for short-term recovery for security interests instead of sustainable peace. Furthermore, The Bonn Agreement, was a series of agreement attempting to re-establish the State of Afghanistan following the US invasion and has been argued to favor only one side of the conflict, which was the ally of US during ‘war on terror’ (Goodhand, 2009). For instance, the agreement established the foundation for future Afghan governance in order to help the U.S. eradicate al Qaeda and,’ in the long term, would be stable enough to deny terrorists a haven’ (Fields, 2011). The fact emergency security was the main interest of donors brought them to keep elites at their posts in exchange of promise of stability, which consequently excluded a minority.  The fragmentation of Afghan politics and institutions, limited the application of conditions.

Thus, the Bonn Agreement while attempting to reform the state, in the US interests, did not create de facto sovereignty and domestic legitimacy; which are essential to sustainable peace.

In comparison, Somalia post-war recovery attracted many interests especially in terms of trade and geopolitical location. For instance, the fact the main donors were the US and USSR reflected the on-going cold war rivalry and the desire for both countries to access the red sea. (Mehmet, 1971) However, the large amounts of aid flow did not accelerate growth and development, as there was no existence of efficient administration.  In contrary, when the trade interests are situated in another state the humanitarian aid will follow the trend. Moreover, Britain cut off aid to Somalia, which they argued was based on Human Rights violations. But, Britain selectivity towards aid was actually caused by difficulty to administrate aid and mainly political factors. Therefore, much of the attention at the time was on Nigeria, due to Britain strong trade interests with the country. As, the world economy today depends significantly on oil and Britain is no exception. Actually, the Nigerian oil production and the British foreign assistance to Nigeria begin since the colonial history, which explains their interest to keep the territory stabilized as weak Nigerian oil out-put could have negative impact on the donor as well as the recipient of aid (Vazul, 2010).

National interests from donors thus undermined promoting good governance and strong political infrastructures in post-recovery of developing countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan (Sorensen, 2013). To sum up, conditional aid seems incompatible with the self-interested nature of bilateral donors. As concerning the role of international organizations it also seems like the main interest of IMF, which is to promote global growth and economic stability and so is not in compliance with the actual needs of citizens in recipient country. This last point raises the question, if conditionality has been ineffective due to fostering violence, marginalizing a part of the population and delegitimizing the state then would the use of unconditional aid be more benefiting? Furthermore, we will see the use of unconditional aid through NGO’s can also be problematic and has its flaws with the example of cash-based transfers since 2000 in Somalia which illustrated the difficulty to monitor the process as most payments were involved in fraud and diversion problems. (Hedlund, 2012) Nonetheless, even though the complex discussion around the question of which policy is more suitable between ‘conditional’ or ‘unconditional’ aid is still ongoing, studies have shown the latter has more chances to progress towards the establishment of democracy and ‘country-ownership’ than states that received conditional aid (Kersting, 2014).

It has been argued one way of dealing with the dilemma of sending substantial aid flows to weak institutions is to by-pass the state-centric phenomena of humanitarianism. And so, to deliver aid through Non-government Actors as Acht (2015) would advocate. Their main point is that government-government assistance is more likely to be inefficient as the recipient state suffers from “bad” governance, which they define as ‘‘human rights violations, lacking representativeness of the government and high levels of military expenditures’’(Acht, 2015, pp-2). Thus, this would lead donors to find another way to deliver aid, by targeting directly the population. Furthermore, their empirical analysis is build on the theory bilateral channel are most of the times chosen by donors which goals are non-developmental and interested in securitization through stability process or build upon post-colonialism relationships, as mentioned above. Instead then using NGOs would be more useful to depoliticize aid, especially when emergency on the ground is required. They believe, local ownership of reforms to promote good governance has been lacking satisfactory evidence and so bypassing bilateral channels seems to provide a ‘rational’ choice to the issue (Acht, 2015).

In line with this thought, Djarklov (2012) holds that foreign aid could lead politicians and so elites of developing countries to ‘engage in rent-seeking activities in order to appropriate these resources and try to exclude other groups from the political process’ (pp-169). And so, bilateral foreign aid by creating dependency could undermine democracy. Nonetheless, the solution to solely use NGOs to bypass governments and to underestimate the efficiency of aid when used impartially could lead to undergoing human catastrophes with no long-term solutions. Furthermore, the role of NGO’s in Somalia and Afghanistan illustrates how the roots of the causation of inefficient foreign aid is not the bilateral channel but the non-development goals and the lack of interest from donors in establishing an accountable democracy.

First of all, NGO’s can be considered as enemies and so targeted by local actors due to delegitimization of aid from their perspective as they consider Western aid as political entities (Irby, 2012). Secondly, donors can see NGO’s as an extension of their military interests (Abiew, 2012). Finally, NGO’s do not provide long-term post-war recovery, as the question on the duration of this alternative is questionable.

Spang (2016) questions the view NGO’s provide a clear alternative to bilateral channel by argumenting ‘politicization of aid may cause (…) non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground to become strategic targets in the conflict’ (pp-1). As foreigners and so NGO representatives could be seen as targets, intervening in an area where a specific entity has authority on the conflict zone. For instance, in Somalia Al-Shabaab attacked NGO internal personnel in order to manipulate and control the organizations as they considered them as ‘spies or agents of foreign intervention’ (Irby, 2012, pp-6) but was also manipulated for material gain. Especially Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF), when trying to negotiate access to territory has experienced this challenging obstacle to the process of providing assistance.

In comparison, NGO’s has been used as an extension of the donors military particularly in Afghanistan where humanitarian agencies had to work with states agencies, which undermined their neutrality.  The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell stated in a speech the close relationship the US has with NGO’s during the Enduring Freedom operation in Afghanistan (Abiew, 2012). This situation was later confirmed when the organizations applied the government program. The fact, western government lack of neutrality in bilateral foreign aid also undermines NGO’s at the same time, as local actors perceive them as an extension of modern imperialism.

To sum up, this essay does not argue NGO’s are not a useful tool to provide assistance during post-war recovery but that these alternatives are only short-term solutions, as they do not have the resources or the capacities to bring sustainable peace when corrupted and weak political infrastructures are still governing.

While there has been a consensus among academics that good governance is essential in order to promote development, it is a subjective theory and so means different things depending on individuals.  In this paper, good governance will be referred as the qualities of a state to govern around the principles of democracy, accountability, transparency and legitimacy. Moreover, The 1997 UNDP Report Governance for Sustainable Development sums up effectively the objectives a strong political infrastructure should have in order to be considered as legitimate: ‘it is, among other things, participatory, transparent and accountable, effective and equitable, and it promotes the rule of law.’ Moreover, by providing assistance without considering if the government prior intervention was well governed would improve the view of local actors on foreign aid and so would bring more likely collaboration.  Additionally, along this line aid is mainly undermined because donors do not take into account that even with substantial amount of aid if elites are still exercising power with no development goals then peace will not be sustainable.

 Thus, the aid policy should be applied and delivered with consideration of the reality of what is happening in the country and so the state’s policy. This last point raises the question, what kind of government should be established in order to develop a country post-war?

While some academics argues democracy is not they key to development, as the recipient country needs to find their own solutions.  However, democracy has actually been the most satisfactory solution in order to give the opportunity for equal participation to the political environment. We can consider, development and sustainable peace as the outcome while democracy and good governance are the process to obtain a convincing solution to post-war recovery.

It is essential to highlight the limits of good governance theory, as it is a difficult task to establish a causal relationship between the latter and development. For instance, while it is true democracy does not always lead to sustainable peace and development, the fact it incorporates human rights, transparency and accountability makes it an effective government where there is higher chances that aid will be distributed homogenously to the population (Opara, 2007).

As strong political infrastructures are needed in order to manage grievances and be able to handle conflicts before they will turn violent. For instance, analysis of the situation in Haiti have concluded the only alternative for post-war recovery is to bring the necessary assistance to establish a cohesion between the state and citizens and to work effectively towards a ‘participatory consensus’ (Kumar, 1998).


Considering the above, it can be concluded that in order to establish a long-term post-war recovery the process has to be political, in the sense of establishing good governance.

We have analyzed, foreign aid is mainly undermined by its politicization, due to the donor’s instrumentalization of aid for national and security interests. It is more likely, bilateral channels would be more effective if they provided assistance impartially based on humanitarian need rather than conditionality and so reward of good governance. The current foreign aid assistance in Somalia and Afghanistan civil wars requires the participation of NGO’s and unconditional aid but the roots of the conflict has to address before, as the prerequisite of sustainable peace is good governance and legitimacy of the state.

For further research, the causal relationship between democracy and development should be further analyzed with its applicability to different post-war situations. Furthermore, it would be interesting to consider the variability of democracies in order to establish not a one size-fit all model, but one which could correspond to the state’s cultural and traditional background. While, the Westernized perspective of political infrastructures cannot be applied to every post-war recoveries, engaging in a reform of the current government to promote transparency, accountability and participation could stabilize the conflicts.

Amina Maaloum

Amina Maaloum is preparing an MA in International Politics at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Her studies focus mainly on international security, transition from conflict to peace and international law. She was born and raised in France and comes from a Moroccan and British family. She previously interned at the Council of Europe Steering Committee for Human Rights (CDDH) and participated in volunteering experiences abroad through local NGO’s providing youth with ethical leadership. She is now interning at UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Europe and North America Unit.


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