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British overseas aid as soft power?

November 4, 2016

Some are proposing the UK uses its overseas development aid more as a soft power tool to enhance UK security and trade. This is unsurprisingly controversial. I propose two simple tests which might make this more easily and widely accepted. First, the UK should adopt the foreign policy goal of contributing to an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world – or something along those lines. Second, the simple principle, that aid policies and programmes should put the interests and needs of the recipient society first and above all, with any proposed benefit to the UK being transparently articulated and tested against whether it would undermine this principle.

(A version of this was posted on International Alert’s website.)

The term soft power is used a lot in relation to overseas aid. Most recently, the UK government has been saying it intends to use aid as soft power in British interests, notably trade and national security.

Joseph Nye, who invented the term soft power, saw foreign aid as ‘purchase power’, not soft power. (For Nye, soft power was more a matter of attracting and coopting others to one’s ends). International Alert explored this in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into soft power in 2013. Our conclusion then was that it depended on one’s ends, or aims. We posited that an unwritten foreign policy aim for the UK was probably an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world. Three years on, this does seem to be the case: the UK was a proponent as well as an enthusiastic signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals which enshrine the ideas of sustainable prosperity and peace; and Theresa May has made much of her desire for the UK to provide global leadership in free trade.

But perhaps more important than what the government of the day might think, I believe that the UK as a nation does have this goal. That is to say, if one asked a representative sample of citizens specific questions designed to elucidate their world view, this is one of the beliefs that would emerge. (Of course, as in Brexit, if one asked the abstract question do you believe the UK should seek to create an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world? You might elicit a less favourable response. It’s about how you ask the question.)

Perhaps worth noting that I take my definition of liberalism from Edmund Fawcett, as being based on four core ideas: progress, freedom, non-intrusive government and the ever-present need to anticipate, resolve or manage the conflicts which inevitably occur over resources and ideas.

Is Britain’s aid programme a soft power tool that can help us achieve this aim? I think it is. At its best, it enhances our voice in the international system which sets, supports and enforces the standards, rules and behaviours which increase prosperity, peace and liberalism, be it on climate change, international tax norms, justice, security, transparency, the Responsibility to Protect, or the rights and treatment of refugees.

At its best, the British aid programme helps increase people’s choices so they can play more active citizenship roles, and contribute to prosperity through business enterprise and employment. By improving their welfare it reduces the potential for grievances. It helps citizens and governments in developing and fragile countries work together to achieve more that either could alone. It helps save lives and supports peacebuilding initiatives so that people in conflict-affected situations can restore stability and rebuild their livelihoods, families and societies.

It is no great leap of faith to see how these kinds of outcomes help contribute to an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world. So is this aid as soft power? Through aid, are we attracting others to this higher cause?

For some, the crucial test of whether aid is ‘attractive’ or simply ‘purchasing power’ depends on the degree to which it is instrumentalised in pursuit of narrower foreign policy goals: trade deals for UK companies, say, or the propping up of friendly governments. The OECD’s Official Development Assistance criteria are a useful protection against donor governments abusing aid, and it’s important these are maintained. But we would be naïve to imagine a £12 bn aid programme from which other foreign policy goals were absent, and it’s certainly better to be transparently truthful about this when it is the case. But if Churchill’s comment about Lend-lease (aid which Britain received from the USA during the Second World War), that it was “the most unselfish and unsordid act in history”, can typically be applied to British aid, then I think we could legitimately claim it makes both an economic and a values contribution to achieving the aim of an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world.

One of the ideas currently being proposed is that aid can do more to enhance British security and trade interests. We have to step carefully here. If this means using aid simply to continue propping up bad governments which prevent progress towards shared prosperity and peace, and the advancement of liberal values, then I have strong doubts indeed. If this means a return to the era of using UK aid projects to sweeten the attractiveness of UK bidders for large infrastructure, or a return of tied aid, then here again I have strong doubts indeed: this seems like using purchasing power, not attracting others, to our ends – and it risks supporting aid projects which have little intrinsic value and may even do harm to the people of the recipient countries. And if it means a focus on the UK’s short-term security interests, potentially incubating future security threats, rather than the common long-term security and trade interests of Britain and aid recipient countries, then here too, I have strong doubts indeed.

Britain is a democracy, and overseas aid should remain something the UK electorate supports, so I recognise that it may need to do more to demonstrate an impact on Britain’s own peaceful prosperity, beyond the rather abstract (and perhaps electorally unconvincing) notion that ‘a more peaceful, prosperous and liberal world is good for us, too’. So if there are ethical ways to do that by demonstrating a link between doing good for others while also improving our own prospects, why not? The key is that it should be ethical, and this suggests a simple principle, that aid policies and programmes should put the interests and needs of the recipient society first and above all, with any proposed benefit to the UK being transparently articulated and tested against whether it would undermine this principle.

Provided that principle is accepted and followed transparently, and some version of my proposed foreign policy goal is also taken on board, I would be more relaxed at any proposals to link our aid programme to other foreign policy or trade agendas, and at the idea we are using aid in a soft power way.

We would thus be aligned with Churchill’s notion by making our aid as unsordid and unselfish as possible – and I can’t think of a better way than that, to – in Nye’s words – attract others to our agenda.

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