Foreign aid as social norm: how to play the world affairs game

David Cameron made some rather robust remarks at last week’s G8 summit in France, defending British aid commitments and castigating other G8 nations for their inaction in a way that is interesting for its justifications couched as much in moral terms as it is in instrumental ones. Fulfilling commitments jointly made by the G8 in 2005, he argued, were as much about being the ‘right thing to do’ as they were about the benefits to Britain:

“I remember as a young politician watching the Gleneagles summit and the Live8 concerts and thinking it was right that world leaders should have made those pledges so publicly.

I think when you make a promise like that to the poorest people in the world, you should keep it. And I am proud of the fact that Britain is doing just that.

“But the reality is that as a whole, the G8 has not…

“Britain ensured the accountability report published at this Summit clearly shows what each country has – and has not – done to meet its aid commitments.

“That means numbers in real terms not just cash terms.

“And it means highlighting – not hiding – the $19 billion gap between what’s been expected and what has been delivered.

“Britain will not balance its books on the backs of the poorest. We will be the first G8 country to hit the 0.7 per cent target by 2013.

“Britain will keep its promises. And I was tough in urging my counterparts to keep theirs.

“It’s not just about handing over money.

“It’s also crucially about outcomes and getting value for money, about promoting trade and growth.”

It is easy to dismiss this as an self-interested political move, aimed at sustaining efforts to detoxify the Tory party brand. But given the wails of the right-wing press, there is probably as much political gain as there is loss from stalling or going back on aid pledges. At the heart of Cameron’s remarks is the refrain about ‘promises’, which invokes a certain moral clarity, tapping into an idea that bigger, wealthier countries, should make good on their word because they are the bigger, wealthier countries and therefore have some degree of special responsibility. A different way of putting this might be that a social marker of international stature, respect and status is a country’s generosity, even in times of budget austerity: when you’re a big, important country, you give aid. It’s just what you do, and failing to do so is unbecoming of a big and wealthy country.

Of course, this is by far a settled and widely shared social norm – the very fact of Cameron having to chastise other G8 countries for their failings in this regard suggests that this expectation about aid weighs much less heavily on their shoulders.

But elsewhere in the world, South Africa setting up its own aid agency, and India recently announcing a large line of credit to African countries as well as an expansion of traditional aid in a visit by PM Manmohan Singh, point to the social expectation, as the Guardian’s Jonathan Glennie puts it with regard to South Africa’s new agency, “No hopeful new power can be without one”.

There is probably no shortage of self-interest and instrumental calculation for South Africa and India in establishing and expanding aid assistance to other developing countries – opportunities for their own businesses, political leverage, geopolitical clout on the world stage, access to natural resources and so on. But in the mix equally are the status and social benefits, and their aspirations to be more than just the ’emerging’ developing countries, but to finally emerge and establish their place at the top tier of world politics. And where foreign aid is seen as one such criteria for the social recognition by others of having emerged (alongside say, a Security Council seat) – Cameron’s conception of what appropriate behaviour for a great power entails, dovetails neatly with that of South Africa and India.

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One thought on “Foreign aid as social norm: how to play the world affairs game

  1. Adam says:

    …the direction of the aid is worth noting to (Afghanistan doesn’t do too badly). Interesting post!

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