The rise of populism and what it means for international development

By Ryan Coppack

Over the past two decades, democracies across the world have witnessed a considerable growth in the appeal of populist parties and leaders.  In 2018, as many as 170 million Europeans were being ruled by a government “with at least one populist in cabinet”, up from only 12.5 million at the end of the 1990s. With its divisive and sometimes authoritarian nature, populism is accurately regarded by many as a serious threat to democracy. What is often overlooked, and equally serious, however, is the threat that populism poses to development and aid projects worldwide. But what is populism exactly, and how does it threaten international development?

According to political scientist Cas Mudde, populism is an ideology that splits society into two mutually opposed groups: a “pure” people and a “corrupt elite”. This idea of a “corrupt elite” can prove damaging for development work by eroding the legitimacy of international institutions such as the UN, the World Bank, and the EU. Of course, populism has many nuances that can vary according to nation or leader, and populists can be found anywhere on the political spectrum. Arguably, one of the more threatening forms to international development is so-called “national populism”, a right-wing variety that sees leaders pledge to protect the interests of the people of their own nations ahead of those abroad. This has the potential to undermine foreign aid commitments and international co-operation, by characterising these as threats to national sovereignty and a distraction from policy priorities at home. And with many right-wing populists and their voters also being sceptical of evidence on climate change, to them a focus on ‘sustainable development’ may seem irrelevant.

US President Donald Trump, whose political positions have often been described as populist. Photo credit: Shutterstock

In practice, these attitudes appear to be threatening foreign aid projects worldwide. According to Donor Tracker, the growth of right-wing populism has led to much greater political debate over the value of development assistance. And this may be having a real material impact. A study from earlier this year found that periods of increased populist sentiment among the public – measured using historic survey data and incidences of anti-government protests – were associated with reduced aid spending figures in OECD donor countries between 1990 and 2015. Examples of the populist threat to international development can also be found in recent months in the United States. In February, President Trump proposed cutting the US foreign aid budget by 21%, while on July 6 he informed the UN that the United States would be withdrawing from the World Health Organisation, a crucial institution for Global South countries in tackling harmful diseases.

Populism can also be seen as a concern to the aid recipience of developing countries with some leaders rejecting foreign aid when they are themselves in need. For example, in August 2019, Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, rejected a relief package of $22 million from the G7 in the aftermath of the Amazon rainforest fire crisis. In February 2019, Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro rejected a significant foreign support package, condemning it as “fake humanitarian aid” and proclaiming “we’re no one’s beggars”.

Jair Bolsanaro, President of Brazil, at a rally in 2018. Photo credit: Shutterstock

But it is also important to recognise that populism does not just manifest itself at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Populism also helps to indirectly give rise to ‘national populist-lite’ policy formations, a trend involving typically mainstream parties adopting policy positions with populist appeal. Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016, the Department for International Development (DfID) was met with far more scrutiny and hostility and, according to Donor Tracker, “needed to prove its raison d’etre and pivot to policies that [were] linked to Britain’s interests”, namely trade and national prosperity. In June this year, the UK Government announced that DfID would be merging with the Foreign Office, something one prominent MP said was “destroying at a stroke a key aspect of global Britain”, and which many aid charities fear will lead to foreign aid being spent entirely on British foreign interests rather than on those most in need.

The tragedy is that, when populists claim to be standing up for the interests of their own nations, they often neglect that, in our globalised world, nation states can never be completely shielded from what unfolds beyond their borders. The Covid-19 pandemic has starkly demonstrated this. What is in the national interest is the maintenance of world health, global prosperity, and international peace, all of which are strengthened by development and aid projects worldwide.  Criticism of international institutions and frameworks is essential when it is well-informed and used to create a better future for all. But in the years ahead, it will be increasingly important to distinguish constructive criticisms from those made by individuals that seek to undermine these causes.

Ryan is a second-year undergraduate at the University of Cambridge studying Human, Social, and Political Sciences.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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