May 26, 2024

Are power dynamics in foreign aid shifting due to racism within national and international systems?

Activists and aid workers joined forces to demand an end to the current aid industry practices that reinforce the global power dynamics favoring wealthy donor countries over poorer developing nations.

Baba Ogobonna in Mali

Are there shifts in the power dynamics within the realm of international aid. The racial justice movement of 2020 exposed the institutionalization of racial prejudice within both domestic and foreign aid systems. Activists and aid workers joined forces to demand an end to the current aid industry practices that reinforce the global power dynamics favoring wealthy donor countries over poorer developing nations. They urge for a shift towards more equitable and inclusive approaches to aid distribution.

However, the outbreak of COVID-19 highlighted how prevalent global injustices still are by the ways in which countries responded. While some populations had easy accessibility to vaccines, it remained an unattainable aspiration for others. Instead of prioritizing vaccine distribution according to necessity, nations pursued “vaccine diplomacy” as a means of gaining support from others. The aid industry’s quick reaction to the conflict in Ukraine, which was made possible in part by redirecting aid resources from African crises, has further strengthened the belief that aid primarily benefits those who are already privileged.

We organized a series of dialogues between 2020 and 2022, with a focus on highlighting African perspectives, in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the changing power dynamics within aid. We engaged in casual exchanges with intellectuals who are prominent in various parts of Africa. We conducted online consultations to observe the similarities and differences in their viewpoints. Subsequently, we included the viewpoints of contributors by hosting a top-tier conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

During the discussions, our main focus was the influence of aid in Africa and we explored the following questions: Have there been advancements in aid design and distribution across Africa due to requests for fairer aid practices. Has there been a change in authority regarding international aid. If there has been a change, where and how did it occur. Looking at the current direction, how can we anticipate the evolution of aid power dynamics in the future. The significant outcomes of our discussions are summarized below.

Every participant within the realm of aid work possesses a form of influential prowess. Changes in the distribution of aid could potentially weaken the influence of all parties involved and reduce their motivation to drive meaningful transformations.

As the world becomes more multipolar, traditional aid power dynamics that involve governmental donor-recipient relationships are no longer as straightforward. The individuals involved in aid provision have become more varied, with international donors, recipient governments, NGOs both at the international and national level, civil society organizations, citizens of both recipient and donor countries, and private sector firms operating in the field of international development all playing important roles. While power is not distributed evenly, each of these players possesses their own unique power sources and interdependencies. Each of them has a stake in it and stands to face potential consequences.

Donors wield the authority of financial resources. Governments receiving aid have the authority to grant permission based on their sovereignty to decide the individuals or organizations allowed to operate on their land and the conditions of their operations. Both individuals are answerable to the political representatives they serve. International NGOs and commercial organizations involved in development are relied upon by donors to secure funding and deliver resources and services to government agencies, local partners, and other entities within their respective countries. Many times civil society and social movements seek to contest the power of governments (and on occasion, funders). One often finds that they rely on financial contributions from donors or governments and, similar to donors, must obtain approval from national governments to maintain their operations.

Changes in the authority of a single participant within this interconnected structure will have a ripple effect across the entire system. In addition, aid reliance patterns present challenges in altering the dynamics of aid distribution authority. Economies that depend on aid count on it to maintain their overall economic strategies and spending. When assistance is stopped, administrations must secure other methods of revenue generation or else encounter civil and governmental turmoil. Occasionally, it may become necessary for them to implement notable cost-cutting measures, which could further intensify public demonstrations.

Participants asserted the need for both benefactors and beneficiaries of aid to have a well-defined plan to end their collaborative efforts. According to a participant’s argument, aid should only serve as a short-term solution and not a long-term support. However, devising exit plans poses difficulty as many stakeholders still rely heavily on the present system.

The increasing danger of populism and the decline of democracy highlights the imperative necessity of empowering and fortifying local civil society organizations (CSOs).

A number of individuals emphasized the significance of aiding civil society organizations in safeguarding the public sphere amidst a climate of growing regression in democracy. Numerous civil society organizations still rely on aid, particularly in situations where there are limitations on the space for citizens to express themselves, there is a shortage of resources, or where they lack widespread support from the community. When these civil society organizations push for increased government responsibility and openness, they frequently encounter political persecution and cuts in their financing capabilities. Assistance from donors can have a vital impact on safeguarding the civic space by equipping CSOs with necessary resources to shield them against local political influences and bolstering their civic initiatives. Despite progress, these organizations still depend on assistance from outside sources, which perpetuates imbalances of power in which civil society groups are more answerable to global contributors than their own communities.

The genuine localization of assistance encounters difficulties due to outsourcing, enhancing abilities, and prestigious non-governmental organizations.

The participants reached a consensus that domestic actors should take ownership of aid, referred to as “local ownership. ” However, efforts to localize aid frequently result in outsourcing. Localization and sub-contracting are two distinct concepts. Usually, donors initiate a process of inviting proposals, to which national NGOs or foreign international development companies submit their responses. The victor is then obligated to carry out the project or program devised by the donor. Rather than excluding them, those involved in the project concurred that it is best for national NGOs and other local partners to have significant involvement in every aspect of the project, from its beginning stages to its execution and assessment. It is imperative to consider them as genuine collaborators, rather than mere subcontractors or onlookers, in order to leverage their knowledge, competencies, and proficiencies for the benefit of aid.

According to participants, aid is often allocated to NGOs or businesses that are managed by the nation’s wealthy and powerful, leaving out less prominent NGOs or community groups that have actual links to the communities they serve. Although these top-tier developers possess expertise in donor communication, comprehension of funding language, and proficient financial statement generation, they may lack credibility within the local populace resulting in challenges in implementing long-lasting transformations. Instead of just giving assistance to anyone, our participants stressed the importance of giving it to individuals who have a clear understanding of the issue and are capable of providing solutions that are locally-grown and can be maintained.

The changes in power relations regarding foreign aid are intricate, ongoing, diverse, and multi-level. Smartly paraphrased: These demand meticulous assessment, constant pondering, and thorough examination and focus on policies. Although the solutions are intricate, the necessity is apparent. Our consultations have indicated that the achievement of inclusive, equitable, and sustainable development in Africa through international aid will continue to be limited unless there is a more equitable distribution of power between domestic and international actors in the global aid system.