Foreign Aid

At our meeting tonight, Adrian held an Economic Development Center discussion on foreign aid and how we can best focus aid to achieve the best outcomes. Foreign aid is a very multifaceted issue, raising questions on the value of aid vs. trade and investment, how much aid should be give, the benefits and problems with NGOs, and dependencies and distortions caused by aid, among other problems.

A large part of the discussion centered around NGOs and their relative success in comparison to governments. Many members argued that NGOs are less susceptible to corruption and are more able to actually help people. However, by focusing on NGOs instead of governments, we inhibit governments from forming the institutions they need to provide services to their people, keeping them weak and potentially leading people to rely on NGOs rather than their own government for basic services. Another aspect of debate was to what role culture plays and how far we can go with sending aid. Members discussed when aid becomes neocolonialism and the legitimacy of promoting Western values. For example, we discussed gender equality and to what extent donors have the right to try to empower women or change their status in society. Several members tried to identify that there is a limit to how far we can go in trying to impose what we believe to be right. The consent of the people involved is important, and we must be careful to be work with the local culture, rather than see it as something that must be changed. However, cultural shifts may be inevitable with aid, and one member pointed out that changes in dress, for instance, aren’t necessarily bad things. Some argued that there are certain aspects, such as the empowerment of women and the ending of poverty, that we can encourage, no matter the culture.

We also discussed the difference between military and humanitarian aid, and how national interests often dictate the dispersal of aid, rather than altruism. Aid can allow states to prop up dictators and leave regimes less responsive to the demands of their people, as they can get revenue from foreign governments rather than taxation.
I’d like to thank everyone for an exceptionally dynamic and thought-provoking discussion! Foreign aid is a very complex issue and I think we managed to analyze many of its key components. If you have any questions or would like to write a piece relating to foreign aid, feel free to post a comment below or contact Adrian Jaycox at ajj2124@columbia.edu.