Foreign Aid

Foreign Aid is a complex and contested issue. Part of the reason that foreign aid is complex is that we cannot consider a nation to be singular (as if it is one entity, instead of a collection composed of many individuals, institutions, and group). Nations include within them different ethnic, race, and religious groups, men and women, elites in politics and business, the non-elite populace, and so forth. This complicates things further with respect to aid among groups. Aid agreements that elites make on behalf of the nation may benefit the elites without benefiting, and even with harming, the populace, making international aid a danger zone for perpetuating corruption (Aluko & Arowolo, 2010; Coyne & Ryan, 2009). When elites of aid-receiving countries fail to spread the aid in useful and autonomy-creating ways within their countries, then the ostensible intention the aid-giving nation has of helping people in destitute countries is subverted. There is considerable research in development studies demonstrating that aid perpetuates corruption and dictatorship, and does not help development (e.g., Aidt, Dutton & Senna, 2008). Jayawickrama (2000) discusses ways that these effects might be curtailed.

Note, though, that if the intention of the provider of foreign aid is to beget loyalty from particular leaders who will suppress popular revolt in their countries and thus to “maintain stability,” then foreign aid can be an excellent way to achieve such goals. The Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was fought by either larger rich country buying the loyalty of dictators who suppressed their own populations (for a time). The USSR backed Fidel Castro in Cuba, Edvard Shevardnadze in Georgia, the Al-Assad family in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Siad Barre in Somalia, and many others. The US backed the Hashemite family in Jordan, the house of Saud in Saudi Arabia, the Somoza family in Nicaragua, Augosto Pinochet in Chile, and many others. I would provide a caveat to the strategy of buying stability and loyalty by supporting dictators, however. The uprisings of 2011 and subsequent civil wars in Syria and Libya illustrate that even dictators cannot always suppress people’s desire for adequate provisions and freedoms (Pratto, Stewart, & Bou Zeineddine, 2013). These and other examples further illustrate that when democratic institutions and culture have been suppressed, a transition to democratic governance and more egalitarian international relations are quite difficult to establish. If “stability” is of paramount importance to the neighbors then they may support dictators who are more loyal to their aid-giving allies than to their own people.


Aidt, T., Dutta, J. & Senna, V. (2008). Governance regimes, corruption and growth: Theory and evidence. Journal of Comparative Economics, 36, 195-220.

Aluko, F., & Arowolo, D. Foreign aid, the Third-World’s debt crisis, and the implication for economic development: The Nigerian experience. African Journal of Political Science and International Relationships, 4, 120-127.

Coyne, C. J., & Ryan, M. E. (2009). With friends like these, who needs enemies? Aiding the world’s worst dictators. The Independent Review, 14, 26-44.

Jayawickrama, N. (2000). Transparency International. In A. Y. Lee-Chai & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The use and abuse of power. Philadelphia: Psychological Press. (pp. 281-298).

Pratto, F., Stewart, A. L., & Bou Zeineddine, F. (2013). When Inequality Fails: Power, Group Dominance, and Societal Change. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1, 132-160. doi:10.5964/jspp.v1i1.97

Class Activities, Exercises, and Discussion Points

  1. Using bona fide news or official sources, look up what kind of "aid" a country or charity or international body that interests you gives to some other body. What is the form of the aid (e.g., loans, weapons, building infrastructure). Are there "strings" attached to the aid? (e.g., interest rate on a loan, recipient must cut social welfare spending to get the loan, recipient must buy weapons from the lender with the loan, recipient must accept visits by foreigners to observe/verify certain things).
  2. (Possibly using the example you selected for Q 1), see if you can identify valid opinion polls about how the people in each of the countries involved feel about each other? You might find on-line bona fide publications (Example1, Example 2), and you can also get the original data from opinion research companies or from university repositories for research purposes (but usually not for profit): Pew,  Pew Global Attitudes, Economic & Social Indicators from The Economist, Global Public Opinion Research Guide, World Public Opinion,

Here is an example of research that did something like this exercise with respect to how people in other countries feel about Palestinians and Israelis, considering some types of power relationships those countries had with Israel.

Raphael BenLevi, Amnon Cavari & Lesley Terris (2019) Global public opinion toward Israel: mapping and assessing the determinants of public attitudes in 45 countries, Israel Affairs, 25:6, 1006-1025, DOI: 10.1080/13537121.2019.1670442

Additional Resources

TED-x talk on how (not) to do aid Prof. Maliha Chisti

Interview with Jeffrey Sachs, advocate for ending global poverty using development aid

History of Foreign Aid | Prof. Sebastian Edwards

Interview with Prof. Bill Easterly, critic of foreign aid

What US aid to Pakistan did|The New Yorker

Ten Years After the Haitian Earthquake |In These Times

Interview with a US aid worker| The Might

Misplaced Charity | The Economist

DIY Foreign Aid | New York Times