The donor's dilemma and the political effects of aid

This research project looks at the implications of the unintended political effects of development aid. It focuses on how donors should respond to rights abuses committed by governments they provide development assistance to. Giving aid to governments that are committed to achieving development seems desirable, yet such assistance can also be seen as condoning or even supporting rights violations committed by non-democratic regimes. 

Our first paper develops a framework for understanding the different contexts that donors are faced with and how they should respond. It suggests that there are three types of ‘donor’s dilemma’: 

  • a complicity dilemma, when an agent acts to achieve a desired outcome but others do wrong while progress towards that outcome is underway;
  • a double effect dilemma, when the agent’s pursuit of the desired effect has foreseeable side effects which, in most other contexts, would constitute a wrong;
  • a dirty hands dilemma, when the agent acts in a way that would generate a negative effect as a means – perhaps the only means – to achieve the desired positive effect. 

A politically realistic approach to these conundrums, sensitive to context and political complexity, need not be normatively silent. Rather, it is important for donors to be able to acknowledge that they face a dilemma, to recognise which kind of dilemma it is, and to work towards transitioning away from the context generating it. By explicitly acknowledging and addressing these dilemmas, donors could make the case for responding differently to normatively distinct situations, strengthening the public legitimacy of development aid.

The research will be developed by looking at empirical cases in more detail, and by considering donors’ existing responses to the unintended political effects of aid. 

Researchers: Niheer Dasandi (DLP) and Lior Erez (University of Cambridge)

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Image: Kyle Pearce/Flickr.

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About DLP

The Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) is an international research initiative that explores how leadership, power and political processes drive or block successful development.

DLP focuses on the crucial role of home-grown leaderships and coalitions in forging legitimate political settlements and institutions that promote developmental outcomes, such as sustainable growth, political stability and inclusive social development.

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