Foreign Aid In Disarray: Theoretical Gaps And Policy Failures

Foreign Aid and Corruption

Foreign Aid and Corruption


Oleh: Stefan Cibian[2]

Artikel ini memuat dengan cukup lengkap praktek-praktek bantuan internasional (foreign aid) dalam perspektif hubungan internasional dan beberapa ilmu sosial lainnya. saat ini, bantuan internasional telah mencapai tingkatan yang baru dari masa-masa sebelumnya. Bermilyar-milyar dolar telah mengalir sebagai bentuk praktek bantuan internasional, baik dalam bentuk dana, program-program maupun wujud lainnya. Berbagai rezim mengenai bantuan internasional telah disusun dalam satu dekade terakhir. sayangnya, di Indonesia—sebagai salah satu Negara penerima bantuan terbesar—konsep bantuan internasional masih belum di kaji pada porsi yang semestinya. Dapatkah ilmu hubungan internasional sebagai disiplin yang masih muda menjelaskan praktek-praktek bantuan luar negeri? Selamat membaca..


Several studies show that foreign aid fails in producing the expected results. Also, despite constituting an international practice, foreign aid receives little attention from international relations theory. This paper inquires how foreign aid can be understood on international relations grounds, after the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Making use of existing scholarly work, I assess the existing international relations theory literature on foreign aid and I identify relevant insights from other fields, from practice, and from the development of the aid regime. The paper takes the stagnating debates on foreign aid a step further by showing two major obstacles to a functioning foreign aid regime which rest on international relations grounds—the current understanding of inter-state relations/sovereignty and of ‘doing development’. Also, the paper shows why understanding aid requires an interdisciplinary approach and finds that the adoption of the MDGs represents a critical event which will lead to further improvements in the aid regime.

In the past few years the international community has considerably strengthened the international foreign aid regime. The adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was followed by the adoption of international conventions (Monterray, Rome, Paris) where donor countries pledged not only to improve aid practices but also to increase aid to unprecedented amounts. Moreover these developments have a strong direct impact on national and regional foreign aid policies. As an example, the European Union (EU) – the largest donor (EU plus Member States)—has commenced in 2005 a wave of ample reforms (Luis, 2005) officially justified by the need to adequately address the MDGs (European Union, 2005).

The topic of foreign aid1 was hardly addressed in the international relations theory (IR theory) literature in the last decade. Despite the important place it held on the research agenda from the 1960s to the 1980s, in the 1990s it more or less disappeared. Hattori (2002, p.649) underlines the foreign aid gap in the IR theory: “the preoccupation with policy and programme effects, or what foreign aid does as opposed to what it is, has substantially missed the point”. It is therefore difficult to understand the changes in the foreign aid regime based on weak theoretical grounds.

Limited debates concerning development aid have taken place on realist, liberal, and critical streams of IR theory. The realist approach provided conceptual tools for employing foreign aid in the inter-state struggle for power and control (McKinlay and Little, 1977; Morgenthau, 1962). The liberal theories have emphasized the beneficial aspects of aid for the developing world and foreign aid’s moral foundations (Opeskin, 1996; Lumsdaine, 1993). While, critical approaches note the capacity of foreign aid practices to dominate and exploit developing countries/cultures (Hattori, 2002; Wood, 1986).

In spite of this concern with official development assistance (ODA) in the beginnings of the establishment of the foreign aid regime, current international relations literature is in need of new and deeper understandings of the concept and practice of foreign aid. Current calls for aid re-conceptualization appear legitimate when looking at the way foreign aid works on the ground and the criticisms pointed out by other fields of research. However, the argumentation provided when making such calls is insufficient, failing to point to a coherent direction of thought. The literature also fails to explain why foreign aid needs to be reconceptualized on IR grounds.

Seeing from practice that the foreign aid agenda of the largest donor (EU plus Member States) (EU, 2006b) has been greatly affected by the adoption of the MDGs (EU, 2005b) and noting the incapacity of international relations theory (IR theory) to adequately conceptualize foreign aid, my research question is: How can foreign aid be conceptualized in the context of international relations theory after the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals? This paper will argue that the MDGs will have an important impact on the aid regime, and that IR theory can offer key insights for the understanding of foreign aid and for improving aid’s functionality.

For reasons of clarity I will provide in what follows working definitions for two major terms: ‘foreign aid’ and ‘MDGs’. Lumsdaine (1993, p.33) understands ‘aid’ as “gifts and concessional loans or economic resources, such as finance and technology, employed for economic purposes provided to less developed countries by governments of the developed democracies. [] In sum, the foreign aid referred to here is concessional economic assistance, direct and indirect, from the developed democracies to the Third World”. More precisely in the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee’s (DAC) understanding, aid has to meet three criteria to be recognized as ODA: “it has to be undertaken by official agencies; it has to have the promotion of economic development and welfare as its main objectives; and it has to have a ‘grant element’ of 25 per cent or more” (Cassen and associates 1994:2).

Turning to the MDGs, in 2000 under UN coordination, 189 countries adopted the Millennium Declaration, which established the Millennium Development Goals and targets (presented in appendix 1). These goals and targets aim “to create an environment – at the national and global levels alike – which is conducive to development and the elimination of poverty” through a worldwide partnership among developed and developing countries (United Nations, 2006).

As I have pointed out above, aid is an under-theoretized field. As such, theoretical clarifications are necessary before engaging in empirical studies. Therefore, for the development of this paper, I will mainly make reference to scholarly rather than empirical works.

To address the research question I will look at four sources: IR theory, other relevant fields of science, the practice of foreign aid, and aid policy transformations. I will start, in section one, with IR theory by looking at the different ways foreign aid is defined in the literature. I will continue, in section two, by looking at how other relevant fields of study and practitioners understand the concept and practice of foreign aid. And, in the third section, I will address the changes in the international regime of foreign aid (how aid policies changed over time due to major external events).

Drawing on all these sources, I will show that the MDGs have a crucial impact on the foreign aid regime, I will discuss the role of IR theory in understanding aid practices and also I will point to the necessary IR theory developments for enhancing the functionality of the foreign aid regime. These accomplishments will contribute to the existing literature first by shading a new focus on aid within IR theory, second, by identifying major obstacles to a functional aid regime—it takes furhter the stagnating debates on development assistance—and third, by showing the importance of the MDGs.


While a young discipline, IR theory has gathered an impressive number of theoretical accounts, structured around several disciplinary debates. How did all these theories deal with the appearance/existence of the peculiar practice of foreign aid? As suggested in the introduction, IR theory failed to conceptually clarify the appearance of foreign aid and its practical implications. This section will look to how several IR theories (realism, liberalism, and neo-Marxism/world system theory, and partially

postpositivism) deal with aid, while the other sections will provide further evidence to support my claim of IR theory failure.

1.1. Realism and Foreign Aid

The anarchy of the international system resides in the freedom and autonomy of states. This depicts a decentralized international system where states are sovereign, exercising their power over “a defined territory, a population and a government” (Sørensen, 2004, p.17), while engaged in a relationship/game of power politics with the other states. Within this setting, foreign aid is simply a policy tool. This tool in the realist view was an outcome of the Cold War, emphasizing the competition among the great powers. Foreign aid is seen as a key weapon in the Cold War since it facilitated the possibility of Third World countries to align with one or another superpower. This political choice, argues Morgenthau, is what donors buy when granting foreign assistance (Hattori, 2002, p.642).

The existence of foreign aid is justified as a policy tool since there are “interests abroad which cannot be secured by military means and for the support of which the traditional methods of diplomacy are only in part appropriate. If foreign aid is not available they will not be supported at all.” (Morgenthau 1962: 301) In spite of its supposed utility as a tool in support of foreign policy objectives, in practice it appears that foreign aid policy “has been conceived as a self-sufficient technical enterprise, covering a multitude of disparate objectives and activities, responding haphazardly to all sorts of demands, sound and unsound, unrelated or only by accident related to the political purposes of our foreign policy.” (Morgenthau, 1962 , p.301)

Morgenthau (1962), the frontrunner of realism, in his article A Political Theory of Foreign Aid has developed a typology of foreign aid. He identifies five policy aims: military, prestige, humanitarian, economic, and subsistence. This typology comes to organize the complexity of policies which are labeled ‘foreign aid.’ Attached to these there are two types of strategies used for exercising influence: propaganda and bribes. Most of the identified types of foreign aid policy are political, less so humanitarian foreign aid, which in spite of being understood as non-political, receives such political function when it is set in a political context. (Morgenthau, 1962, p.301)

I will focus now on what Morgenthau understands as aid for economic development and which falls within the lines of the working definition presented above. For realists, foreign aid for economic development is fairly simple to account for. It is understood simply as a ‘bribe’ while any expectations beyond the receiving of political services can only lead to disappointment. Morgenthau (1962) refutes the argumentation of the supporters of aid for its supposed democratizing capacity which would lead to advancement of peace. Popular thought makes

“correlations between the infusion of capital and technology into a primitive society and its economic development, between economic development and social stability, between social stability and democratic institutions, between democratic institutions and a peaceful foreign policy” (pp.304-5).

It is suggested that such correlations have no basis in the practices up to 1962, nor in the broader historical experience. To strengthen his case Morgenthau (1962) uses a cultural argument as well. He uses the Burmese example where success is condemned “in this world because it stands

in the way of success in the other world, [therefore] put[ing] a cultural obstacle in the path of industrial development” (p.305). In his view, foreign aid cannot overcome this obstacle, what is more likely to happen is that instead of producing development, foreign aid will become a tool for “serving the interests of a precapitalistic or prerational society.” (p.305)

Within this context aid appears to be less successful, and what is more important, it is claimed that such success is not dependent on strictly economic terms, but rather on “intellectual, moral, and political preconditions, which are not susceptible to economic manipulation, if they are susceptible to manipulation form the outside at all” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.307). The striking aspect here is that realists speak about how internal aspects can be influenced or not, implicitly accepting an attenuation of the concept of ‘sovereignty’.

Foreign aid remains an ‘insoluble’ problem as long as it stays on ‘technical/economic’ grounds. What is needed is the integration of foreign aid in the ‘political policies’ of the recipient country while in the same time being guarded by ‘political conditions’. “In this respect, a policy of foreign aid is no different from diplomatic or military policy or propaganda. They are all weapons in the political armory of the nation” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.309).

The main problem with the realist attempt to account for the practice of ‘foreign aid’ is that it refutes the goal of ‘helping countries develop’ – ‘development,’ and by doing so, it fails to construct the theoretical framework which would allow such a policy goal to be accomplished. Realism gives no chance to aid for economic development. This term, ‘aid for economic development,’ in the realist view is just a label on a policy states can pursue in their fight for power and supremacy. The effectiveness of foreign aid, on these grounds, should be evaluated based on for example how loyal different recipient states are to their donors. However, in more complicated pictures where more than twenty donors are involved within one country, such a theoretical base becomes shaky or useless.

The transformations of the international regime of foreign aid in the last decades make as well the realist understanding of little use in several cases as for example accounting for the aid disbursed through multilateral institutions. These institutions appear independed of the donors’ interests as in several fora developing countries hold the majority. It appears that contrary to Morgenthau’s recommendations, aid for economic development has created expectations of ‘economic development’ what becomes puzzling in this new context is how can actually such expectations be supported by the IR theory. Realism fails on this account.

1.2. Liberalism and Foreign Aid

The second IR line of thought which paid considerable attention to foreign aid is liberalism. The liberal ideas come sharply against the realist thought, if the realists do not even accept the idea of ‘doing development’ the liberals get engaged with it and maintain that moral vision, values, and ideas constitute the basis for donor involvement in Third World countries. In this section I will look in more detail to how the liberals understand foreign aid.

Lumsdaine (1993, p.280) makes a direct link with the idealist theory by arguing that “the postwar period was a vindication of the Wilsonian vision”. In consequence humanitarian ideas and values characteristic of the western world are the basis of international cooperation and more specifically of the commitment to fight poverty (Lumsdaine, 1993; Black et al, 1996). An ‘unprecedented degree of official consensus’ has been reached in what regards the practice of development managing to rally support even from the developing countries. (Black et al. 1996)

It naturally follows, in Lumsdaine’s (1993, p.139-40) argumentation, that “[t]hose who wanted more aid wanted aid divorced from national interests”. Faced with such arguments we enter a new dimension of foreign aid. In contrast to Morgenthau’s understanding of aid, and contrary to his advice, the liberal position not only offers an important role to values, but takes a step further by creating the expectation of successful development processes.

The liberal literature, getting closer to the technical debates from fields like economics and development, account for the efforts made by the international community in improving the disbursement of foreign aid. Easing financial terms for least developed countries (LLDCs), easing conditions of procurement, channeling more aid through multilateral channels represent few of the major decisions taken by the international community which have led to an increase in the efficiency of foreign aid (Lumsdaine,1993).

Still, how come such humanitarian ideas came to influence international practices? To this question, the liberal view builds a consistent link between international practices and the constitution of social practices within the state. Noël and Thérien (1995, p.552) argue as well that “[w]ith respect to foreign aid, at least, the liberal perspective appears vindicated. Welfare principles institutionalized at the domestic level shape the participation of developed countries in the international aid regime.”

Furthermore, Lumsdaine (1993) uses the argument of change in the international system for building a liberal case which can explain change in the foreign aid regime. Focusing on the importance of bargaining and negotiations for the existence of international cooperation and for the development of international regimes (particularly the foreign aid regime) he manages to bring counterarguments to the realist stand-point at least on two accounts, first, the ‘stickiness’ of regimes (in the realist logic, change is hard to explain)—regimes once constituted produce consistent changes. And second, the fact that the results of negotiations in foreign aid have led to benefits for third parties (developing countries), aspect which contradicts the realist logic.

Such an understanding of change in international regimes based on the effects of moral values and beliefs appears more adequate than the competing explanation based on the donor interests. The reasons are that change has been consistent in character, that change in the foreign aid regime rather reflects the needs of the recipients than the narrowly-defined interests of the donors, and that change has occurred due to a voluntary compliance of donors with agreed upon, non-mandatory sets of standards (Lumsdaine, 1993).

A more recent development which is based on the liberal stream of thought is the good governance agenda of the donor nations. For Moore and Robinson (1995) this development raises ethical issues in what regards the activity of the donor nations as political conditionality appears to be a “blatant violation of the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states” (p.286).

Another ethical issue is whether donor states act in good faith when imposing conditionalities. The fact that proliferation of arms has not been reduced and that donors’ operational criteria for disbursing aid are vague make us partially question donors’ good faith (Moore and Robinson, 1995, p.286-7).

The liberal point of view appears one-sided, just as the realist one. Development aid faces many more issues beside its connection with ethics, and focusing just on this one aspect can in consequence be of limited use, especially when confronted with the more material goals of foreign aid, like, for example, reducing poverty. This is not to deny the moral side of aid, but rather to point to its limitations. Moore and Robinson (1995) take this critique a step further pointing to the un-sustainability of any aid or foreign policy which is narrowly defined solely in terms of ‘universalistic ethical goals’ (p.293), without taking into account that “[f]oreign aid is given for a range of reasons” (p.293).

1.3. Critical International Relations Theory and Foreign Aid

Several streams of IR theory have been influenced by Marx’s thinking. Within the positivist theories there is structuralism while among the postpositivist theories we find poststructuralism and critical theory. In what regards foreign aid, this influence is to be found in arguments of domination and exploitation of the developing countries.

As Robert Wood (1986 in Black et al., 1996, p.261) argues, contributing to the neo-Marxist tradition, aid is “a set of practices designed to ensure the worldwide expansion of capitalism”. Donor’s policies of disbursing aid are connected to the recipient’s capacity to follow the principles of market economy. Rather than perceiving foreign aid as a right of the developing countries, it is perceived by the donors as a privilege, and therefore conditionality appears justified.

On a similar dimension, Gill and Law (1989 in Black et al.,1996) and Black and McKenna (1995 in Black et al., 1996, p.261) portray a neo-Gramscian perspective where the aid regime becomes a ‘hegemonic consensus’ among the main actors of the international community. These actors are the donor agencies, transnational capital, and the international financial institutions. Hayter (1972, p.9) takes this view a step further. In her view, aid similarly appears as a “concession by the imperialist powers”. This concession is made with the sole purpose of enabling them “to continue their exploitation of the semi-colonial countries,” just as reforms are done in capitalist countries by “exploiting classes relinquish[ing] the minimum necessary in order to retain their essential interests”.

World system theory sees foreign aid as “the underlying structure of world capitalism [which] works to expand the basic infrastructure and institutions of capital circulation that foster unequal accumulation and constrain the development path of recipients to a subordinate role in the world system” (Wood, 1986 and Hattori, 2002, p.644). The 1970s provided, with the Debt Crises, powerful evidence for the ‘economic hierarchy’ of the international system. The “severe imbalance in the world financial system [was] caused by the snowballing collapse of commercial ‘petrodollar’ loans to Third World governments” (Hattori, 2002, p.644). As Hattori (p.645) points out, between 1975 and 1990, 71 heavily indebted developing countries received structural adjustment loans of over $118 billion 2002 US dollars. These structural adjustment loans “fostered a condition of debt bondage on a world scale, substantially reinforcing the basic material inequality between the North and South”.

1.4. Postpositivist International Relations Theory and Foreign Aid

‘Postpositivism’ is an umbrella term for a variety of theories which are similar in some respects but have their disagreements as well. Unfortunately, none of these theories have produced a substantial contribution to the understanding of foreign aid. One attempt in this sense has been Hattori (2002), who looks at foreign aid as a ‘form of giving’. Hattori criticizes IR theory for not paying sufficient attention to the practice of giving/gifts and manages to make a substantial case in this respect, showing how this practice is relevant in the post-war period. Hattori draws on authors like Sahlins, Mauss, or Bourdieu and connects foreign aid with resource allocation – gifts and with symbolism.

Hattori (2002, p.639) identifies two conditions on which a new conceptualization of foreign aid is developed. The first refers to foreign aid as a consequence of material inequality. And the second refers to foreign aid as unreciprocated giving which makes “the wide ranging policy objectives attached to foreign aid […] secondary to a more basic role of affirming the social relation in which they are extended (which, in this case describes the underlying conditions of inequality).” Based on these two insights, Hattori connects foreign aid with Bourdieu’s ‘symbolic domination’—“a practice that signals and euphemizes social hierarchies”.

Aid has the advantage that the resources allocated are required or needed by the less developed and thus, it becomes a means for symbolic domination. Foreign aid, in this context, appears more as a process of naturalizing social relations rather than producing policy effects, a process of signaling a social hierarchy. As such, foreign aid appears to play a crucial role at systemic level, as a symbolic practice which

“have not only helped to maintain order in the post-war states system but have done so in a way that has avoided the more standard recourse to violence or coercive means: the pervasive hierarchy between the industrialized states and their former colonies […] was naturalized by a practice of extending and accepting gifts” (Hattori, 2002, p.649).

The critical theories (in their positivist or postpositivist form) are generally blamed for their incapacity to provide alternatives to the criticized reality. They maintain an important value in that through the critique they are presenting they are capable of raising awareness of the underlying structures of power existent within a certain community or within the international system. In what regards their capacity to account for foreign aid, it remains limited to making communities aware of the possible implications of accepting certain relations of power. It is a small contribution, but it is indeed crucial for building further new practices of development.

1.5. Concluding Remarks

A common aspect of all the lines of thought presented in this section is their acceptance of the underlying premise that aid comes to tackle material inequality among states. This inequality is present in all four views, but nevertheless it receives not only different but rather divergent meanings. The realists understand this inequality as a potential for furthering the political interests of certain states into the international space. The liberal internationalists understand this equality dysfunctional economic development, proposing free trade and international finance as a mitigating mechanism. The Marxist theories see the inequality as a mechanism for the expansion of capitalism which sets constraints on the development path of the recipient countries. Finally Hattori’s conceptualization of aid, is different in that it moves from the general understanding of aid as ‘active influence’, granting a more descriptive role of signaling a social hierarchy (Hattori, 2002). These make evident how foreign aid has been an issue for the traditional theories of foreign aid, but less so for the postpositivist IR theory. One reason for this can be that aid moved slowly to become more of an issue in the intergovernmental spheres which themselves are neglected by IR theorists.

Foreign aid is interpreted by each of the presented theories within the boundaries of their epistemological assumptions, leaving no space or chance for aid to be a signal of transformation, an attempt to question the ‘old certainties’ of the discipline. As such, foreign aid appears a marginal subject in IR theory, more understood as a tool in the fight among the different proponents of theories, a tool devised to support old claims rather than a subject which is analyzed in depth. IR theory fails altogether to offer an understanding of what foreign aid is and what impact it has on the international system. And as such, it fails to offer the theoretical tools/framework which would allow foreign aid to produce positive outcomes. In order to open the possibility for a broader IR understanding of foreign aid, I will now turn to other disciplines and practice for relevant insights.


Foreign aid is a highly interdisciplinary ‘animal’, as much conceptually as in practical terms. Due to its international character, practically involving transfer of resources for various purposes, foreign aid touches upon fields like international relations, economics, finance, development, law, political and policy science, ethics, anthropology, or cultural studies. After reviewing some of the major IR approaches on foreign aid and noting their weaknesses, this section will attempt to provide alternative understandings of foreign aid coming from other disciplines and from practice2.

2.1. Foreign Aid and Other Disciplines

This section will present elements coming from economics, development, anthropology, and political science.

2.1.1. Economics/Development Economics:

Within economics a wide literature discusses foreign aid by engaging in several major debates. In contrast to IR theory, economics is more concerned with how aid works on the ground and what effects it has on the economies of the developing countries. There are economists who claim that aid should be stopped, but even such views are grounded in the debates mentioned above. Due to heavy reliance on data opposing results have been obtained, increasing the uncertainty of whether foreign aid works or not. Here, I will point to several debates and present briefly the

Another important aspect, with implications for IR theory, is the comparison between countries under the curse of natural resources and countries dependent on foreign aid. Djankov et al. (2006, p.2)—arguments supported as well by Atkinson and Hamilton (2003)—see foreign aid in this context as “a sudden windfall of resources and, therefore, in principle […] subject to the same rent-seeking processes”.

Recently the donor nations have moved towards imposing a new type of conditionality related to good governance and democratization. The mainstream view supports such conditionality, as Kosack (2003, p.14) notes, the political environment is seen as the most relevant factor which determines whether aid is effective or not. However, Djankov et al. (2006, p.2) provide a diverging view. As a result of their study they claim that “foreign aid has a negative impact on the democratic stance of developing countries”.

When looking at the impact of foreign aid on the economies of the developing countries it is important to keep in mind the existence of other types of financial flows—foreign direct investment and remittances. These can influence aid has on the recipients’ environment. Djankov et al (2006) claim that certain types of private investment are more effective than ODA, while Ram (1996, p.1373) warns that “public investment appears more productive than private investment in at least as many instances as suggest the opposite”.

As mentioned above, donor characteristics matter. The donor community has come to grow substantially in the last decades, meaning that bilateral donors as well as a wide array of multilateral donors are present in many developing countries. The result is an obvious coordination problem, collective action being rather scarce. Acharya et al. (2004) and Knack and Rahman (2004 in Djankov et al,, 2006) highlight the great direct and indirect transaction costs for recipient countries in dealing with donors and the negative impact of the competition between donors—resulting in lower quality of governance and economic performance.

There are benefic impacts of aid: filling in the resource gap, the exchange gap and catalyzing growth-agents. As well there are critiques: that aid brings little benefit while largely burdensome, breeds complacency, and provokes distortions in the economy or may lead to other negative repercussions (Agrawal and Lal, 1993).

The several elements presented have at least four important lessons for IR theory. First, the practice of foreign aid has deep internal implications in the recipient countries—it is a fact that states are intervening in the internal affairs of other states. Second, the aid regime while different from the trade regime might benefit from the flexibility allowed for trade. Third, the current way states cooperate for ensuring the development of the Third World is problematic—leading to failures—and in great need of new solutions. And, fourth, economics has debated aid problems, but has reached an impasse, meaning that the real problems aid faces are to be found elsewhere.

2.1.2. Development Studies and Anthropology

The second field I will look at is Development Studies. In spite of its short history, development studies have undergone tremendous changes since the meaning of the term ‘development’ has itself changed dramatically over the years:

“[w]hen development first emerged […], the goal of development was understood to be raising GNP. Now that goal has been expanded to include concerns about income distribution and poverty, environmental degradation and sustainability, the status of women, maintaining cultural integrity of indigenous populations, and human rights” (Finnemore, 1997, p.203).

One tremendously important element which has suffered important changes in status is the concern for alleviating poverty. The adoption of the lenses of poverty “changed the collective international understanding of what development is and the kinds of development activities that are undertaken” (Finnemore, 1997, p.220). The major shift here is passing from poverty as a condition of countries to poverty as a condition of individual human beings. (Finnemore, 1997) This move raises political controversies since it attempts at the stability of two very well embedded international norms: national self-determination and state sovereignty.

Leaning more towards development history, Adelman and Morris (1997) develop four lessons which prove relevant when trying to grasp ‘foreign aid’. I will mention the first two: that development “has been highly nonlinear and highly multifaceted” (p.833, original emphasis) and that

institutions: […] matter greatly in explaining which countries among those having similar initial conditions perform much better than others; and affect development in a very nonlinear fashion” (p.834, original emphasis).

Anthropology reveals a completely new dimension of what development is and in consequence of what the role of foreign aid gets to be. As Strathern (1988, p.4 cited in Escobar, 1995, p.16) points out, anthropology has undergone in the 1980s a deep scrutiny of its intertwinedness with the “Western way of creating the world” and with “other possible ways of representing the interests of the Third World peoples”. As a consequence new horizons appeared in the ways of writing and reading “new conceptions of culture as interactive and historical” (Clifford, 1986, p.25). More specifically, the construction of “local versions of development and modernity […—] according to complex processes that include traditional cultural practices, histories of colonialism, and contemporary location within the global economy of goods and symbols” Dahl and Rabo (1992 in Escobar, 1995, p.13)—are to be taken into consideration.

From development studies and anthropology it is important for IR theory to be informed first, about the changing nature of ‘development’ which implies that what states do when they get involved into the internal affairs of other states changes with time(s). Second, the necessity to take situational relativism into consideration when faced with tailoring adequate institutions and policies for a country’s moment in history (Adelman and Morris, 1997, p.840)—implying that the relations among states are contextual and in spite of the international legal agreements are understood differently by different states. Third, that development even if promoted by states and international institutions (donors) is aimed, as in the case of poverty, at individuals—implying that developed states care, take action for, and take action on behalf of individuals who are not under their authority. And fourth, that aid redefines cultures by allowing interaction among donors and recipients—implying that the mere existence of aid practices lead to transformations which are not fully understood.

2.1.3. Political Science

A large amount of political science literature focuses on the political systems of the developing countries. What brings an interesting insight for understanding the complexity of foreign assistance is aid’s role in the creation of new political entities (Moss et al., 2006). Political centralization of power on one hand and economic development on the other represent the two sides of the balance which needs to be harmonized. Another hard balance to strike is that of the degree of autonomy of the state relative to society (Frisch and Hofnung, 1997, p.1244).

The commitment of local elites is one of the causes for the failure of many development programs. “‘Commitment’ is development’s latest holy grail, along with the presumed synonyms of ‘will’ and ‘ownership’” (McCourt, 2003, p.1015). In what regards ownership, Collier et al. (1997, p.1406) criticizes the idea of ‘selectivity’ and ‘conditionality’, by arguing that “[t]he attempt to buy policy changes actually exacerbates the problem of lack of ownership of policies on the part of the government”. Aid may actually be promoting pathological relations “in which the state coerces while the international institutions govern” (Frisch and Hofnung, 1997, p.1253). In this context Collier et al. (1997) suggest that a comprehensive evaluation of overall government outcomes is performed based on which aid can be disbursed.

Lancaster (1999) argues that African development faces mainly political problems: power, the influence political institutions exercise, policy choice, and the way public organizations function. To these problems, Frisch and Hofnung (1997) add that foreign policy elites, who run the international aid regime, will actually use aid to maintain the existent political order.

Drawing lessons from the aid-related findings of political science, IR theory can inform itself first, about the importance aid plays in building new political entities, which again implies that donors get involved deeply into the internal affairs of ‘future states’ (i.e.: the development of the Palestinian Authority). Second, if aid is to be successful it must take into consideration the internal political environment and culture—meaning that more than allowing for states to intervene in internal affairs of other states, it would be necessary to provide a framework which would make local

political processes and cultures accessible and adaptable. Third, aid, in certain circumstances may weaken the recipient state, empowering the international community beyond what is theoretically conceivable (e.g.: Bosnia and Herzegovina). And forth, aid to developing countries, especially to LLDCs, represents an attempt on transforming the entire political, policy, public, and private environment of the recipients, meaning that the complexity of aid practice encapsulates a wide array of intra-state practices which need to be lifted up at the inter-state level for scrutiny; this further requires the development of multiple interdisciplinary approaches.

2.2. Foreign Aid and Practitioner’s Views

The heterogeneous literature on foreign aid that is produced by practitioners reflects the complexity of the field itself. Practitioners are influenced in what they write, among others, by their experiences, their field of work, their academic background, and the specific type of written work they produce. I will specifically look to Mosse (2005), Cracknell (2000), and Cassen and associates (1994). Mosse (2005) presents an excellent view of the consultant with social science background. Cassen and associates’ (1994) work represents a general assessment of foreign aid, a work which is comprehensive and widely cited, while Cracknell (2000) providing an insight from the field of aid evaluation.

2.2.1. Aid Practice and Politics

From a practitioner’s perspective aid projects are shaped by the donor’s identity, vision, ideals, and, as such, they satisfy first of all the “political needs of Western development agencies […] [l]ong before they meet the livelihood needs of poor people” (Mosse, 2005, p.22). As an example, British exports to India in 1994 were “thirteen times the annual aid budget” (Mosse, 2005, p.22).

These projects in order to be implemented do “not only require (and bring into existence) a range of unscripted inter-institutional broker roles, but also need extensive informal networks of support, built personally through relations of trust and maintained through an out-of-sight ‘economy of favours and obligations’ existing at the margins of legitimacy (or maybe in some cases legality)” (Mosse, 2005, p.125).

In the end, what makes development projects run, is not “policy consensus, rational planning or bureaucratic procedures”, but rather “personalities, brokering skills and the channels of influence of individual mediators, buffers and filters” (p.125).

Such claims bring a very important message—politics matters. And it matters a lot, as even the success or failure of development projects depends on political factors, “[s]uccess is not guaranteed but produced” (Mosse 2005, p.168). In this process, projects become systems of relationships and the actors involved (villagers, project workers, managers or consultants) become “political actors with a sophisticated understanding of dynamic interests with their organizations and wider society” (pp.130-1).

These systems of relationships empower people in a perverse way through their relationships with the outsiders and through recognizing the superiority of what gets to be defined as ‘modern’. “Development rarely works counter to existing patterns of power, and project systems obscure the autonomous generation of meaning” (Mosse, 2005, p.19). In this context, one of the greatest development challenges becomes empowering the poor and powerless ones—who are actually the target of most aid projects—while having to work with the existent structures of power, even when their actions are not reflecting the goals of the projects (Cracknell, 2000).

2.2.2. Aid Practice and Policies

Policy models “which work well to legitimate and mobilize political support do not provide a good guide to action, nor can they easily be turned into practice. The logic of political mobilization and the logic of operations are different”. These policy models grant donors the statues of ‘social hegemons’ since their function is to “reveal and conceal, explain, justify, label and give meaning” (Mosse, 2005, p.17).

In the midst of a web of interests, development projects seem to require long periods of time to become established, to create their own universe of meanings, to produce change on the ground. Major policy changes can easily interfere producing a “rupture of the relationships that make a development project function and secure its reputation” (Mosse, 2005, p.184). Such practices of rapid policy changes “is a worrying characteristic of aid agencies today” (p.202) rendering aid projects rather futile for ensuring sustainable development. As such, projects are forces to permanently adapt to the changing external agendas, remaining policy projections and spreading “false models, simplifications, and development illusions” (p.235).

The current tendency is to abandon the practice of projects and move toward sectors or programs. However, new types of conditionalities, like good governance, community empowerment, human rights, poverty alleviation make evaluation of such activities problematic (Cracknell, 2000, p.48). These new directions require a different approach to the handling of the entire aid business, leading aid to become more managerial—“Its ends – the quantified reduction of poverty and ill health – have narrowed, but its means have diversified to the management of more and more” (Mosse, 2005, p.237).

Aid activity has intensified, the number of donors has increased, however there are significant shortcomings in what regards donors’ capacity to cooperate and learn from their/each others’ mistakes. These aspects make “the impact [of] aid in some sense smaller than the sum of the parts” (Cassen and associates, 1994, p.175). The natural question that follows is: why donors do not want to cooperate? Several possible answers are at hand: political and commercial interests, operational difficulty, ideology, problematic understanding of responsibility. Recipients may also not want donors to cooperate for fear of pressure.

There are several important lessons to be drawn from the practical implications of aid policy: that aid “projects can work, but not because they are well designed” that institutional contexts are important when imposing policy prescriptions, that shifts in policy alters the informal systems on which projects are built, or that “an upstream focus on policy increases ignorance of the instrumentalities and contingencies of aid” (Mosse, 2005, p.230).

2.2.3. Aid Practice and People

The implementation of the aid policy relies heavily on the people who are on the ground. It is important to draw lessons from their experience as they truly face ‘development in the making’. ‘Professionals’ and ‘locals’ experience interactions which bring multiple cultural shocks and adaptation. On one hand, the knowledge of experts is hard to justify within a community which finds itself on a different cultural and developmental level. On the other, the impact of development projects on the local communities is much stronger. The mere existence of a development project within a community alters identities and redirects development. “[V]illager needs and identities were shaped by perceptions (or misperceptions) of what the project was able to deliver” (Mosse, 2005, p.94). The production of such change is acknowledged by practitioners; however, the way they choose to produce/manage, use, and justify it is questionable (Mosse, 2005).

2.2.4. Aid Practice and the Local

One important aspect of the new approaches to development is taking into consideration local knowledge when establishing goals and making plans (participatory planning). This practice does not come without problems. The type of knowledge development agencies are looking for is relevant, since underdeveloped communities may not posses the knowledge donors require, the result being “a rather unusual type of knowledge produced through project activities and negotiated across opposing views […] within villages an the project team” (Mosse, 2005, p.95). One of the most frequent aspects which lead to post-project failure is “[t]he widespread failure to relate aid projects to the socio-cultural circumstances of the recipient countries” (Cracknell, 2000, p.251). In the given context the question is how can development contribute to a natural growth of the self from a given cultural ‘soil’?

2.2.5. Learning from Aid Practice

Aid practitioners reveal a new universe. Foreign aid on the ground appears so twisted that, after all, it is a miracle it produces the results it does. The implications for IR theory are many. In ‘doing development’ the goals of the ‘high politics’ agenda get connected with a specific aid worker in India and with a specific local community/tribe in Africa. It is not only the heads of state, or diplomats who become subjects of international affairs, but every single member of a developing community and every single expat working on aid projects.

There are many lessons to draw from practice. IR theory should pay attention to the wide array of interests entangled in a continuously transforming network—this implies that from the macro-level where IR theory stands right now, it needs to look down to disciplines which can offer insights for micro-processes. The individuals are important and the cultural difficulties they encounter are relevant. The importance of symbols and symbolic relations is evident as much at the local level as at the international level. Development produces cultural mutations—which means that a special attention must be paid to the ways the ‘local’ is handled. It appears difficult to transform policy into reality, if ever possible—implying the need of devising more appropriate tools. The way changes in goals and macro-policy impact the working of the local activities—implying that ‘doing development’ is deeply problematic. Donor cooperation raises several problems—implying that inter-state relations and international law does not provide a sufficiently developed framework for such activities to be undertaken by cooperating states. Aid policies must be very well coordinated with other policy fields—leading to an increased complexity. The production of knowledge in local developing communities, so vital to the process of development itself, is a neglected area which represents one of the main reasons for which we can discuss of imperialism and exploitation in relation with foreign aid.

2.3. Concluding Remarks

The understanding of foreign aid, once browsing different fields of study and practice, reaches a high level of complexity. Aid implies relationships and connections which IR theory cannot account for in its current state of development. Only an interdisciplinary account of aid can provide the needed knowledge for understanding such a practice. In order to help us understand why IR theory is important in providing an interdisciplinary understanding of aid, in the next section I will look to the way the international system of foreign aid evolved over time.


After reviewing what IR theory has to say about aid, after pointing to specific understandings of aid in other disciplines or practice, I will turn in this section to the emergence and development of the international regime of foreign aid3. The aim of this section is twofold: first, to isolate useful elements for conceptualizing aid, and second, to address the importance of the MDGs—I will argue that the adoption of the MDGs constitutes a relevant macro-IR event for the aid regime, making evident the need to know how aid can be conceptualized post the adoption of MDGs.

3.1. The Development of the Foreign Aid Regime

The appearance of aid is puzzling. Practically nonexistent before 1949, foreign aid came not only as something novel, but also a contradiction of previous practices (prevention of financial outflows, safeguarding technology, knowledge, etc.). Over its first forty years of existence the net economic foreign aid exceeded $500 billion and in many countries of the Third World aid surpassed foreign investments for many years (Lumsdaine,1993).

Lumsdaine traces back the beginnings of aid practices (i.e.: advocacy aid) to late thirties—early forties, associating such practices “with peace and labor groups, churches and New Dealers in the United States” (p.225). The flourishing and institutionalization of international concerns for global issues has led to a rapid development of aid practices. Such concerns become evident with the establishment of several intergovernmental organizations, the United Nations (UN), the UN System, the Breton Woods Institutions, or the experience of technical assistance to Latin America. A good example of how these institutions relate to aid practices can be found in the 1944 Philadelphia Declaration of the International Labor Organization stating that “poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere” (ILO, 1944).

Against such a background, the institutions which were initially empowered with the reconstruction of Europe have found a continuation of their founding purposes in addressing the ‘(re)construction’ of the less developed world. The rapid expansion of such a behavior of states poses several questions to the explanatory capacity of IR theories, but while the theory lags behind, on-the-ground practices are reinforced by continuous financial support, by changing political discourses and by criticized bureaucratic activities.

What Lumsdaine (1993, p.104) notices—that in spite of important differences, DAC donors “had broadly similar aid policies”—signals the importance of cooperation which led to commonly established norms, mutual influence, and made possible the development of a real donor community. In spite of this positive image, the fact that donors remain donors and former colonies remain recipients make evident that the new practices of foreign aid fail, over and over again, in reaching their stated goals (Hattori, 2002, p.646).

At this stage we come to another focal point of the foreign aid—IR theory connection. Several macro-IR events have taken place since the aid regime came into being (e.g.: Cold War, End of Cold War, War against Terrorism) and they produced severe alterations on the aid regime. I will briefly consider the following periods: the beginnings of the aid regime, the Cold War period, the post-Cold War period, and the Post-Millennium Development Goals period.

The practices and events which led to the appearance of foreign aid can be placed in time at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. The Marshall Plan, Truman’s Point Four, and other subsequent programs created the basis on which the international regime of foreign aid grew. The Marshall Plan, the most successful development program, represents resource flows from US to Europe with the purpose of reconstruction after the Second World War. Lumsdaine (1993) sees Point Four of the 1949 inaugural address held by US President Truman as the beginning of the official foreign aid policy. In his speech, Truman called for “a ‘bold new program’ of technical assistance to less developed countries that would help them to attain higher standards of living” (p.221). Following Truman’s inaugural address, the UN (Economic and Social Council) has decided to establish the United Nations Extended Program for Technical Assistance. The World Bank, which initially was offering loans just for European reconstruction, shifted its focus to developing countries (Lumsdaine, 1993). And finally, the Colombo Plan was put up by Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting of January 1950 for helping South and South-East Asia.

The Cold War period represents the era on which the realist approach bases its conception of foreign aid. The US has a major interest in granting aid as a means of preventing the spread of communism. “Particularly during the Cold War, guarding developing countries against “Communist intervention” justified the use of foreign aid” (Katada, 1997, p.931). At an institutional level, the regime of foreign aid had undergone considerable strengthening. The establishment of the International Finance Corporation—affiliated with the World Bank, the appearance of the first regional Bank specifically focused on development—the Inter-American Development Bank, and the establishment of the Special Fund for Development of the UN. On a symbolic level the 1960s were proclaimed the Development Decade (Lumsdaine, 1993).

The end of the Cold War represents as well a big shift in the aid policy. Aid levels fell, however multilateral institutions have strengthened themselves due to the role they designed for themselves in the post-communist states. The main motivations underpinning aid have shifted to addressing regional or global problems like “the provision of new technologies (as called for the ozone treaty) or […the development

bf] international strategies to deal with common problems like global warming, the drug trade, or the spread of AIDS” (Biersteker, 2000, pp.157-8).

Recently, the MDGs came to represent the “international reference for measuring and tracking improvements in the human condition in developing countries” (Shaw, 2005, p.500). They have become a “comprehensive and multidimensional development framework and [a] set [of] clear quantifiable targets to achieve by 2015” (p.500). However, the assessment of the progress to date offers a mixed picture. Exenberger (2005, p.105) concludes that the “half-way results of improvements in this 25-years agenda (1990-2015) are not satisfying so far (cf. UNEP, 2003)”, contrary, Hanmer and Naschold (2003, pp.274-5) conclude that poverty can be halved by 2015. The positive results refer mainly to Asia, whereas even the more optimist studies give little chances to Sub-Saharan Africa and to its rural areas in particular.

3.2. Why Are the Millennium Development Goals Important for the Foreign Aid Regime?

This section has portrayed in a sequential manner the development of the foreign aid regime. Aid as an international practice represents a peculiar development of the second half of the twentieth century and its institutionalization opens new ways for rethinking international relations and the changing international order. Since, as it appears evident from the development of the foreign aid regime, aid is in the midst of international practices and of the international system, it follows that IR theory plays a central place in facilitating its adequate understating. Why are the MDGs important in this context?

As mentioned above, the MDGs represent goals and targets of the international community, in its struggle with world poverty. Lumsdaine (1993, p.276) makes an important observation on donor behavior: “The setting of a target often led to reform in a particular area – especially if accompanied by better statistics on donors’ adherence”. Mosse’s (2005) example supports Lumsdaine’s observation. Mosse describes thoroughly how the change in Department for International Development’s (DFID) targets (new focus on poverty) impacted the existing programs. He claims that such a shift in the DFID’s strategy led to radical reforms, reducing the importance of several of the existing programs. Black et al. (1996) bring another important argument by showing how the Canadian Aid has been more and more subject to direct and massive influence of an ever stronger international regime of foreign aid. All of this suggests that the MDGs represent such targets which will be conducive to radical changes. A good example is the EU’s reform of its aid policy in 2005/2006 (EU, 2006a; EU, 2006c; EU, 2006d).

Reports have an important impact on the policies of the donor countries. Cassen and associates (1994, p.204) offer a good example in this sense when they refer to the Pearson Report. “Since Pearson Report—and partly as a result of its recommendations—aid’s effectiveness has improved considerably”. The wide array of reports signaling the eminent failure of the MDGs is having such an impact, placing strong pressure on the donor community. Signs of this pressure can be found if we are to look again at the EU’s recent reform (EU, 2005b; EU, 2005c; EU, 2004), but as well to other developments in the international community like the Rome Declaration on Harmonization of 2003 (HLF, 2003) or the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness of 2005 (HLF, 2005).

The way MDGs came to exist reflects the activity of the international institutions and the political debates concerning development of the last decade or more. The international community’s focus on poverty has been shaped in time leading to a strong consensus. Another argument in favor of my claim is that both the process itself through which the MDGs were shaped and the focus on poverty make the MDGs a solid international agenda capable of producing radical changes.

For all these reasons, the MDGs will produce a radical change in the international aid regime, leading to a stronger motivation for making aid work. If before the adoption of the MDGs it could be claimed that the foreign aid is just a policy tool for the advancement of donors’ interests, in the post MDGs era such a claim no longer holds—once donors like the EU place sometimes the developing countries’ interests above their own (EU, 2006d; EU 2005a; EU 2005d; EU 2005e). Having shown the importance of the MDGs for the aid regime, I can now turn to IR theory and its role in understanding foreign aid.


This final section will continue the theoretical inquiry presented in the first section by drawing on the insights presented in sections two and three. The aim of the section is two-fold: to point to the role of IR theory in completing an interdisciplinary understanding of foreign aid and to show the theoretical gaps which impact the functionality of the foreign aid regime.

4.1. Foreign Aid after the Adoption of the Millennium Development Goals

Having observed the complexity of what foreign aid has become one conclusion is evident, that it is an impossible task for any discipline alone to attempt to present an understanding of foreign aid in all its dimensions and implications. As it was shown in section 2.3, an interdisciplinary account is required.

Different fields can help in clarifying specific aspects/characteristics of foreign aid. These clarifications must be developed within interdisciplinary conceptual frames in order to become relevant. Against this background, the role of IR theory in contributing to an integrated understanding of foreign aid revolves around the international element present in every aspect of aid practices. The next section will look at two such elements, pointing in the same time to the importance of IR theory for the functionality of the aid regime.

4.2. The Role of International Relations Theory

It appears evident based on the information presented throughout the paper that more or less the same debates have been around for decades. Economics focuses on data, results being contradictory mainly due to the different data sets employed. Anthropologists started their critique of the way donor agencies work long ago; it’s only that nowadays they receive more support. Everything about aid’s ineffectiveness seems to be pointing to the political process and conditionality appears not to be fully effective. Most of the issues still debated today were present explicitly or implicitly in Morgenthau’s 1962 article. Recently, however, the MDGs force the donor community to reassess and improve aid practices. I will ague in what

comes that the resulting reforms are not likely to be successful. What is wrong then? Is it that scholars for decades have not been able to sufficiently research the enterprise of aid, or are the real problems located in ignored spheres?

I claim that the problems which lead to the foreign aid’s failures in producing sustainable development are located on the grounds of international law and international relations theory. Moore and Robinson (1995) point out to what I see as the major obstacle to the success of the foreign aid regime – “political conditionality is a blatant violation of the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations” (p. 285). This obstacle can be translated in two related problems. The first problem refers to the interpretation of the inter-state relations, which in the current state of affairs cannot provide the needed support for aid to produce sustainable results. And the second problem refers to the mainstream understanding of ‘doing development’ (or ‘disbursing aid’) which can hardly be leading to success.

4.2.1. Inter-State Relations and Foreign Aid

From an IR theory perspective foreign aid remains as ‘baffling to both understanding and action’ as Morgenthau noted in 1962. Since IR theory failed to provide the theoretical/conceptual tools which would allow states to cooperate with other states (bi- or multilaterally) on internal issues of developing societies practices as foreign aid—or more specifically conditionality, policy recommendations, technical assistance—remain in the ‘gray’ area of international affairs being close to unacceptable or even illegal—understood as a breech of sovereignty. Also, as Evans (1996, p.1130) notes, we lack a clear “understanding of the nature of [the] synergistic relations between state and society and the conditions under which such relations can most easily be constructed”. This means that we lack both the conceptualization of ‘a sovereignty’ which would allow states to cooperate in a meaningful way for ‘doing development’ and also an appropriate understanding of the connection between state(s) and society.

Sovereignty represents an agreed upon right of states to be considered constitutionally independent, retaining the right to decide on all internal and external matters of the state and the obligation to respect the sovereignty of the other states. Looking at how sovereignty gets to be shaped in the donor—recipient relationship, donors seem to have a double impact on the recipient states. The existence of the economic aid represents in itself a violation of the reciprocity principle and as well the fact that donors’ policies guide development projects represents at least an indirect violation of the non-intervention principle (Sørensen, 2004).

On the grounds of foreign aid, the hardest challenge a new conceptualization of sovereignty faces is to combine ownership with conditionality; in IR terms, to combine the respect for the current principle of non-intervention with granting developed states the right to take up responsibility and therefore act, for example, for the alleviation of poverty. This may not prove easy since “the changes diagnosed here concern the actual substance of statehood” (Sørensen, 2004, p.107).

4.2.2. ‘Doing Development’ and Foreign Aid

As Pearson noted in the report of 1969 (in Cassen and associates, 1994, p.203) the effectiveness of aid is not related solely to procedures and techniques, but to the ‘overall organization of purpose’ (i.e.: goals of development). The second problem I raised can be integrated in this line of thought. The way ‘doing development’ is

conceptualized cannot support practices and policies which would lead to sustainable development. Of course this problem is related to the previous one in that if states cannot conceptually work together on internal issues (breach of sovereignty); then thinking about how such work might become efficient is not likely to happen. The current institutions cannot transcend the existent conceptual limitations and this is evident in the results they get: “Yet aid has not been adequate to the challenges of world poverty” (Lumsdaine, 1993, p.285). If the aid community is to be successful, it should pay more attention to the limitations of the foundational assumptions of its work.

Why is the current understanding of ‘doing development’ problematic? I develop two arguments in what follows. First, I refer of the concept of ‘development’ in the Western thinking and second I argue that donors run away from the responsibility of making development happen.

Riddell (1996, p.195) asks us to think whether “the type of development being promoted and urged on developing countries is able to achieve the ends of poverty reduction”. Therefore, we shall ask ourselves what kind of development we are talking about. Pretes (1997, p.1424) helps us by clarifying the significance of ‘development’ for the Western culture and its relationship with non-Western cultures.

“[D]evelopment, in its Western sense, is an established process central to the Western worldview (cf. Banuri, 199a, p.66). Development has no end; it is infinite and continua – in practice this involves the control over transformation of nature to serve human ends – and its ultimate justification is that Western civilization has defined it as its principal goal […]. The Western understanding of development is distinctly Western and not shared by non-Western cultures; it is a cultural product and one that is not fixed or given, but subject to potential redefinition. Such a redefinition would involve changing the fundamental questions and beliefs of Western society, in which case it would no longer be Western society” (Pretes, 1997, p.1424).

Since aid is given by the ‘West’, it would be almost impossible to imagine that donors are going to promote non-Western understandings of development in developing countries. This cultural gap between Western donors and non-Western recipients is indeed a problem, and unfortunately one which will stay with us for a considerable period of time. For the purpose of this paper, I will not address this issue in more detail, since my point here is that development is continuous and subject to a plurality of understandings.

Moving into more practical aspects of foreign aid, I argue that a second major deficiency of the current understanding of ‘doing development’ is donors’ fear/incapacity of assuming responsibility. Their ‘trying to help’ is very sequential and easily disrupted by a variety of factors. At first sight it may appear as a structural deficiency, but it has conceptual roots. This fear/incapacity is evident from the fragmentations of the donor community and from the way development work is done through projects/programs. The fragmentation of the donor community is a case of concern, dozens of independent and barely-cooperating donor agencies, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, thousands of more specific or more general projects/programs make the development site within any developing country a rather complicated reality, little likely to offer hopes for coherent outcomes.

Foreign aid policy is based on projects/programs which represent an obstacle to the end of making development happen. Latour (1996, p.24 in Mosse, 2005, p.233) points exactly to this problem:

“Projects remain forever projections. Their actions and events never have meaning in themselves, but are constantly recalled or translated back into the policy text, from which they can never fully depart in order to become part of the everyday (cf. Latour 1996: 24). These projects spread ‘false models, simplifications, and development illusions” (p.235).

The western projects/programs represent an caging of ‘doing development’ in the continuous and fluctuating policies of the western countries, being forced to permanently adapt to the changing external agendas of donors whose commitment is many times questionable.

An even more problematic aspect refers to inability of projects/programs to ‘become part of the everyday’. This leads us to a real paradox. Western donor countries, with a ‘continuous’ understanding of development, attempt to produce development through projects/programs which are conceptually limited to a certain period of time, implying a segmentation/rejection of continuity. This conceptual mismatch points to an inevitable failure of creating sustainable development. Further on, the struggle to create ‘sustainable projects/programs’ reveals the radically wrong focus of aid. Emphasis is put on making sustainable the donors’ projects, rather than the functioning in total or in part of a developing community; the concern stays with the activity of ‘doing development’/the activity of the donors, rather than with ‘development’/the activity of the communities.

A last problematic aspect about projects/programs concerns their incapacity to become part of the local. There is no attention paid to the ‘translation’ of development goals from the western culture to the local culture. The development projects being anchored in the donors’ policies and only influenced by the ‘local’ cannot produce significant desired alterations of the ‘local’. This problematic aspect is reinforced by the fact that in many cases, development policy is also segregated from other relevant areas as trade, security or health. Development projects should rather be anchored in the local and be only influenced from outside. Such a transformation would imply that they become no longer projects, and that is where sustainable development actually starts.

For the donors these interventions are called projects/programs, for the locals these projects/programs represent their reality and definitely represent their array of possible choices. Calling the life of a community a project/program places the dignity and life of those people at the level of technical decisions. Can such an understanding of ‘doing development’ actually produce development? I express my reservations.


I have discussed above different understandings of foreign aid in order to show the shortcomings of the existing IR theories and to build a basis for future conceptualizations. The inquiry is based on four pillars: IR theory, other disciplines, practitioners’ literature, and the institutional development of the aid regime.

Discussion of the existing IR theory on aid reveals serious shortcomings in accounting for the practice of development assistance. The paper finds that the adoption of the MDGs represents a critical event which will lead to further improvements in the international regime of foreign aid. In this new post-MDGs era, the conceptualization of foreign aid must necessarily be interdisciplinary. Also, the paper takes the stagnating debates on foreign aid a step further by showing two major obstacles to a functioning aid regime which rest on IR and international law grounds. These obstacles are the current understanding of inter-state relations/sovereignty and of ‘doing development’.

All these accomplishments have the merit of showing that IR theory is central to understanding foreign aid and of indicating how IR theory can contribute both, to an interdisciplinary understanding of aid and to the improvement of the aid practices. For this to happen, IR theory has to deconstruct its disciplinary isolation and place under scrutiny its core foundational assumptions in order to be able to engage in meaningful interdisciplinary encounters.

Two limitations are to be noted, the paper departs from the assumption that states value the practice of foreign aid and are willing to make it function—assumption which is questioned by some scholars. Also bringing together views from several disciplines has limitations, since due to the limits of space and time, a reduced number of fields were reviewed, while the space allocated for each of them was also limited.

Future research should pay considerable attention to how the concept of sovereignty can be reconceptualized in order to support foreign aid, to how different cultural spaces can communicate, and to how goals and practices can be ‘translated’ into different cultures while retaining their meaning. The literature offers hints in what regards the importance of aid for international relations, however these are very little explored—aid seems to have an important impact on maintaining stability in the international system, also, aid appears to be an indicator for the development of the international system and the evolution of the relations among states.


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[1] presented at the International Studies Association’s 49thAnnual Convention “Bridging Multiple Divides” San Francisco, USA March 26-29, 2008

[2] PhD Candidate, Department of International Relations and European Studies Central European University

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