From Donor to Recipient: The importance of values in understanding accountability of foreign aid

Kayla Lochner | Commentary

In recent years, Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) monitored by the OECD fell 2.7% between 2017 and 2018 totalling $153 billion USD (OECD 2019a). Despite this fall, interest in the governance and accountability of aid continues to fuel debate (Winters 2010; Kilby 2006; Roche 2009; Kaufmann 2009; Elayah 2016; Dijkstra 2018). These debates broadly focus on aid effectiveness (Kaufmann 2009; Elayah 2016; Dijkstra 2018) and accountability (Kilby 2006; Winters 2010; Roche 2009) and grapple with tensions associated with aid accountability, effectiveness and efficiency. This essay argues that while debates on aid effectiveness and accountability are important, such discussions are underpinned by moral imperatives and values. These morals and values shape how international actors decide what is appropriate accountability and this is realised by an examination of the relationship between donors and recipients. Recognising these morals and values is fundamental to debates on appropriate accountability of aid.

Morals of aid will be explored in this essay by examining what is aid; what is accountability; and how is aid given, received and distributed. Distribution has been interpreted as the relationship between donors and recipients. Through this examination, it will be argued that a focus on appropriate accountability in the delivery of aid has given space to critically assess the underlying ethical assumptions for aid. It is important to first understand the underlying moral assumptions of foreign aid to understand the interaction between defining accountability and values. This becomes of significance in assessing how much can be realistically asked of the aid process, and to what extent is accountability responsible for creating space to re-evaluate the aid process.

International aid, also known as Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), is difficult to define. It is broadly defined as government resourcing allocated to support the economic development of developing countries (OECD 2019b). Generally monetary in nature, aid can be distributed to countries, territories or multilateral organisations for administering. The focus on aid as an economic tool is an important first step to recognising the integration of values into foreign aid. The OECD definition reflects the OECD’s economic mandate and demonstrates how the OECD chooses to define aid. However, there are numerous geopolitical factors that are not accounted for in these standard definitions.

There is a strong case that the provision of ODA is closely linked with moral imperatives. A theory of obligation (Van Arsdale & Nockerts 2008) reflects on a moral commitment to enshrine humanitarianism within development spheres. While humanitarianism does not equate to human rights-based methodologies, it often reflects them (Van Arsdale & Nockerts 2008). Edwards (1985) stresses ethical relativism as a core focus for understanding ethical or moral discourses, a critical framework for understanding accountability in foreign aid. Ethical relativism recognises the lack of universal moral truths in ethics, and acknowledges that what is considered moral, just and fair will differ between societies and cultural cosmologies. Appeals to morality have been used throughout the history of foreign aid to justify programming and interventions (Riddell 1987: 5; Anderson 2015). Moral imperatives also highlight the humanitarian imperative to share resources between developed and developing countries (Anderson 2015). A relativist view would indicate that ODA for the pursuit of development inherently enshrines a rhetoric that is characterised by a need to be morally just, but it is rhetoric that values the view to be egalitarian over the view to be internationally competitive. It also would reflect a desire to be humanitarian, and conditionality would reflect preference for neoliberal development.  Often this is enshrined in a rights-based approach. Arguments that illustrate how foreign aid may be ethically flawed (Collier 2018) indicate that conditionality refutes the Western idea of freedom.

Despite a close link with moral imperatives, ODA is frequently used as a form of political power. Moores (2018) asserts that ODA promotes social, political or economic agendas over others, using the example of the Australian “aid for trade” mode of assistance which reflects Australia’s economic agenda (Moores 2018). This can be referred to as aid paternalism (Peters 2014; Baaz 2005; Baker 2015; Baker & Fitzgerald 2011). Branding these aid relationships as paternalistic conveys two main ideas. The first is that aid can be ‘fatherly’, in that it perpetuates a conditioning that donors provide for recipients. It also masculinises the definition of aid. The second is that there is inherently a power relationship between donor and recipient. Paternal ideas and power inherently reflect a values-based approach to foreign aid and so reify how foreign aid is underpinned by moral imperatives.

While governance and accountability are often used interchangeably, the two concepts require definition respectively. There is no agreed definition of what “good” governance entails (Fukuyama 2016). In this context governance refers to the broad access to and exercise of authority to monitor exchanges (Rothstein & Teorell 2008). Good governance incorporates effective leadership, goals, outcomes and efficiency. Dijkstra (2018: 216) asserts that aid dependence implies that governments are accountable outwardly. In the example of foreign aid, this would be to donors, multilaterals, and inter-governmental organisations. Governance requires decisions to be made about what is appropriate to pursue and what is not. This reflects incorporating values and refers more directly to accountability.

Accountability is a narrow definition of good governance. It is an evaluation of what is most appropriate in governance structures, and how this level of appropriateness is assessed (Kilby 2006: 953). It encompasses a level of transparency and openness as well as a commitment to integrity and stewardship. These concepts emerge primarily in the relationship between donors and recipients. In aid, this refers to standards and expectations of mutual accountability between donors, recipients and partners (Roche 2006: 50). Measuring and evaluating accountability inherently reflects values. These values, enshrined in the Accra Agenda for Action and the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (Roche 2009: 50; OECD n.d.) refer to ownership, alignment, harmonisation and inclusive partnerships, results and accountability. These concepts reflect a systematic assertion that a key success to delivery of aid and accountability is the relationship between donors and recipients (Roche 2009: 46 – 47). While these concepts are measurable, and are designed to be, the relationship between donors and recipients is inherently a relationship that depends on shared values and commitments. These include moral imperatives for donors which are fundamental for shaping how and why aid is given, and how much is given. Where these values are not shared, the partnership can err towards paternalistic power.

The argument for accountability is understandable. It reflects a desire to build capacity of recipients and this is exampled in the concepts of the Accra Agenda and the Paris Declaration. Winters (2010) expresses that participation is a core tenet of accountability. However, participation is not a remedy for issues of accountability – including allegations of corruption – in aid programs. Only so much can be asked of participation, but it is important to create the appropriate space for mutual accountability.  Winters (2010: 221) presents the convincing argument that mutual accountability can only occur if the recipient has access to alternative providers, and if the recipient has the power to influence the final outcome. For many aid recipients, these two conditions are not fulfilled. Winters (2010: 224) and Easterly (2007) argue that the influence of geopolitical interests contributes to the unpredictability of aid. Significantly, this unpredictability positions recipients to be reliant on their donors, and characterises the donor as self-interested (Martinez-Zarzozo et al. n.d.; Provost 2011). Despite this, there has been significantly less attention given to whether donors are giving aid correctly (Winters 2010: 224). Arguments on conditionality (Svensson 2003; Bird & Rowlands 2017; Rodrik 2016) and problematic partnerships, including paternalism, examine this idea.

Conditional loans are forms of ODA provided that require recipient countries to meet certain structural adjustment conditions (Burnell & Randall 2005; Kentikelenis et. al. 2016). Facilitated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, recipients are often required to create policies that reflect neoliberal economic values (Bird & Rowlands 2017; Malaluan & Guttal 2003; Rodrik 2016). These policies include free trade market re-orientation, including reducing tariffs or the privatisation of publicy owned goods (Bird & Rowlands 2017; Malaluan & Guttal 2003; Rodrik 2016). These loans aim to reflect the mutual accountability values highlighted in the Accra Agenda and the Paris Agreement. Ownership of issues is created for recipients who are mandated to draft poverty reduction plans (Malaluan & Guttal 2003). Poverty reduction plans also aim to align recipient governments with an approach to civil society engagement that incorporates and values poverty focussed solutions. This is a positive step towards ensuring recipient countries are accountable and offers an opportunity to align ODA conditions with recipient development priorities.

However, conditionality and structural reform have received ongoing criticism. Fraser (2005) and Shah (2017) both indicate that poverty reduction plans often go unfulfilled and risk becoming a sustained extension of donor mandated domestic policy. Conditionality is shaped by the World Bank and IMF, and these policies commonly reflect the economic policies of donor countries (Rodrik 2016). These economic policies, often by driven by political agendas thus reflecting donor values, tend to align with neoliberal economic policies (Bird & Rowlands 2017; Malaluan & Guttal 2003; Rodrik 2016). Structural adjustment through conditional loans has become a norm in foreign aid and is a way to ensure that donor aid is used for what it is intended for. This reflects a desire for accountability in foreign aid.

However, conditionality inherently reduces recipients to passive actors in the aid process: it implicates disproportionate power within the relationships between donors and recipients. These problematic partnerships will often see the use of soft power to shape donor-recipient relationships. Positioning recipients as passive gives insight into how donors view recipients and reinforces paternalistic power relationships. Ultimately, it removes agency from recipients. Understanding power imbalance in these partnerships is fundamental to understanding how accountability may be perceived. As outlined in reference to participation, disproportionate power relationships that are inherently value-based can undermine mutual accountability (Winters 2010).

Australia’s dwindling commitments to foreign aid can be used to illustrate further how foreign aid accountability is shaped by values. The United Nations has suggested countries should provide 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) towards ODA annually. Most states globally fail to meet this target (OECD 2018). Australia, for example, continues to contribute approximately 0.2% of its GNI annually (Lyons 2019). For some, the explanation is interpreted as a dereliction of duty (Lyons 2019, Anderson 2018). This refers to the moral imperative Australia is perceived to have to aid developing countries. This perspective illustrates how a moral imperative may shape a critical perspective of Australia’s foreign aid program.

However, the emphasis the Australian government places on the ‘Aid for Trade’ agenda values an economic interest over a moral imperative. The view of development emphasises that lasting economic growth needs to be achieved through a robust, rules-based trade agenda (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade n.d.). Moores (2018) notes that this is a reflection of Australian values and how it indicates that Australia is acting not out of moral imperative, but out of strategic economic trade interest. This competes with a theory of obligation (Van Arsdale & Nockerts 2008) and instead, denotes a self-interested donor exerting influence and soft power over recipients (Moores 2018). This is reminiscent of paternalism (Peters 2014; Baaz 2005; Baker 2015; Baker & Fitzgerald 2011) and shapes how Australia will select their donor-recipient relationships. By using trade to create a boundary for these partnerships, Australia chooses to use foreign aid to fuel its own strategic interests and to dominate partnerships. By doing this, Australia’s ODA program demonstrates how it utilises values of trade, economic development and power to shape its partnerships.

ODA is deeply problematic to define. It is highly politicised and structured through partnerships between donors and recipients. Accountability is an important aspect of foreign aid, as it is a narrow measurement of governance which emphasises that there are correct ways of managing and monitoring foreign aid interactions. Accountability assumes a commitment on actors’ behalves to integrity, stewardship and a mutual responsibility for ensuring that all actors act appropriately. However, accountability, like foreign aid, is inherently driven by values. Informed by a moral relativist view, accountability will reflect deeply embedded ethical viewpoints that influence design and moderation of ODA. An example of this is the Australian Government’s commitment to an ‘Aid for Trade’ agenda, which communicates the preference for an economic development agenda over moral imperatives. However, some ethical issues also arise from ODA. Conditional loans and soft power demonstrate how accountability can be questioned. The intentional positioning of recipients of ODA as passive actors is reductive and encourages power imbalances which can resemble paternalism. Paternalism and the perpetuation of unbalanced relationships themselves challenge mutual accountability in foreign aid relationships.

Fundamentally, accountability and perception of what is the right type of accountability reflects a series of dominant values. It is important to understand that foreign aid is deeply politicised and that perspectives will tend to reflect ethically relative agendas. Unless recipients absorb donor values or mutual values are found and agreed upon, aid accountability will always be challenged. Greater consideration should be given to how more equal partnerships in foreign aid can improve accountability and how the sector can continue to critically assess the aid process for greater policy change.

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