6
Nov

By Peter Tan Keo

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Foreign aid has a long track record. The biggest upside appears to be the injection of large sums of money into developing countries otherwise gripped by poverty, war and conflict. For better or worse, that money should, in theory, improve lives and raise people out of poverty, leading to sustainable growth and development. The unfortunate truth, however, is that foreign aid has often presented more challenges than opportunities to aid recipients. In the sixty-plus years aid has been mandated by government – versus relying solely on private donations – we’ve seen small improvements across the globe, from reducing poverty to slowing population growth to curing and preventing diseases. Progress that otherwise would have been absent without an outpouring of foreign support.

However, the impact from aid has not been proportionate to the amount of money donated. Foreign aid’s biggest downside is that no clear, effective system has been put in place to hold aid recipients and their governments accountable for resources illegally taken from public sector coffers – a long-standing, and still very present, trend from Asia to Africa to Latin America/Caribbean to Europe. Unfortunately, the absence of that system reinforces social inequities and perpetuates cycles of political abuse that has led to a sophisticated new form of authoritarianism – one that empowers the elite few, while keeping a majority of people in abject poverty.

Discussions about foreign aid remind me of James Bovard’s nominal 1986 article, “The Continuing Failure of Foreign Aid.” Analyzing world events over a period of more than 40 years, Bovard argues convincingly that the success of foreign aid is often measured by intentions, not results. Using the U.S. as one example, Bovard writes, “[F]oreign aid has routinely failed to benefit the foreign poor…the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] has dotted the countryside with “white elephants”…the biggest…of them all – a growing phalanx of corrupt, meddling, and overpaid bureaucrats.”

This trend is apparent in countries like Cambodia.

Sophal Ear, an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, is among a handful of scholars to write persuasively about the dark underbelly of foreign aid in Cambodia. His argument, clearly presented in Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, is this: “[E]ven though aid is meant to encourage development, aid dependence results in bad governance, stunting development.” Two pages later, he goes on to note, “I am convinced that, on balance, the long-term effects of aid dependence have made it difficult, if not impossible, for Cambodia to take ownership of its own development.” Read more…

As published by The Diplomat on November 5, 2013.

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