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Can recipient countries really say no to conditional aid?

Christine Cassar's picture

The OECD bulletin last week came with a headline that is catchy at the very least - Conditional Aid: Recipients can say “no.

Of course, whilst a general healthy skepticism towards aid and its conditions is to be kept, what seem to be the main points in this debate are the following:

The first is that, whilst all governments can articulately pronounce the word “no,” the reality is that they are most often obliged to say yes. In its simplest form, it is a case of “beggars can’t be choosers.” Poor countries, specifically those without the resources (not necessarily natural) to spur a process of growth, are unable to stand up to larger (or rather, richer and more powerful) countries offering some short-term remedies for their pain.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the problem is one of the nature of aid itself; because whilst it is obvious that conditions of any kind and in any negotiation are set by a party in order to best protect its own interest, you would almost think that the word “aid” implies the entry of parties into a negotiation that results in assistance for the weaker party. In other words, aid is aid and not governmental corporatism; and whilst it may take the form of trade, aid in any shape should, in the end, benefit the recipient.

And if the above seemed like simplistic idealism, here’s the second slap on optimism’s face. Aid is also used by governments to secure their own power (without even entering into a discussion on the nuts and bolts of aid being given to secure a specific government’s power); so whilst the average citizen may not be seeing much of the proverbial trickle of aid into his town, the politically important factions are being kept in place and in check. Just as in Sen’s theory of cooperative conflicts, the weaker party (in this case the population) is being presented as a unit in a situation whilst having little, if any, bargaining power, and a rock bottom breakdown position.

So, whilst countries should probably say no, and many wish that they could; the scenario in which they could do so is almost unfathomable, for the alternative is one riddled with uncertainty, insecurity and conflict. If it is, then, a case of “better the devil you know,” would aid be that devil? One that promises fluffy white clouds only to have you thrown into the incessant flames of conditionality…