Foreign Aid FAQs – #6 “Their own government should help them”

It is without a doubt true that governments should help their own people. However, this phrase is often used to mean that the welfare of people living overseas is a problem for their own government to deal with and no-one else.

The problem with this idea is that the concept of each government having absolute responsibility for taking care of their citizens only really works if each state is equally capable of doing this. In reality, because of accidents of geography and the course of history, some states have more capacity to look after their citizens than others.

For example, in 2009 the UK was able to collect the equivalent of $13,806 in tax per person. Compare this with even a relatively affluent developing country like Brazil which – with an almost identical tax rate – collected just $3,957 per person.[1] This enormous difference in tax receipts means that the UK is far better placed to take care of its citizens than Brazil is. The point of foreign aid is to get all countries to the stage where they can collect enough tax to ensure the welfare of all their citizens.

In many cases, developing countries are struggling to overcome poverty because of the actions of developed countries such as the UK. Climate change, disproportionately caused by developed countries, is disproportionately affecting developing countries. Climate change adaptation is already a significant cost for many developing countries, costing Sub-Saharan African countries a total of $10.6 billion a year.[2] It seems only fair that the UK assists with this cost.

Furthermore, the present wealth of the UK is built on the profits of imperialism, which held back the development of many present-day developing countries. Foreign aid is not just an act of charity, but well-deserved compensation for these wrongs.

There are also pragmatic reasons why the UK should continue to send aid to developing countries. It is an excellent way to improve foreign relations and, after all, the aid recipients of today are the trading partners of tomorrow. Helping other countries to develop also contributes to the creation of a more stable world, as states plagued by poverty and inequality are much more likely to be unstable.

Additionally, it is a way to reduce immigration. People born in poor countries are driven by the perfectly natural impulse to seek out a better life for themselves and their family, which often leads them to attempt to move to a wealthier part of the world. Improving the quality of life in their home country therefore reduces the incentive for them to emigrate.

“But what about corrupt dictators and despots?”

Given the examples of Robert Mugabe and other dictators dripping in wealth while the majority of their population struggles to get by, it’s tempting to think that if only these tyrants were toppled, their countries’ problems would be solved. However, more often than not they would simply be replaced by an equally corrupt dictator and these countries would still be poor. Dictators don’t just occur because of individual immorality, but because there are structural factors in place in poor countries which allow dictatorships to easily take hold.

The leader of a poor country essentially has two choices as to what to do with the limited amount of public money at their disposal: use it to improve the lives of their citizens (building roads, hospitals, etc.) or use it to enrich themselves and their key supporters. A good leader would of course use it for the former, but these kinds of leaders tend not to last long. All money spent on helping the public is money which an opportunistic rival can promise key supporters should they replace the current leader. If all dictators around the world were immediately deposed and replaced with benevolent rulers, there would still be plenty of rivals waiting in the wings to take the reins of power – and the opportunities for self-enrichment that come with them.

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When we talk about ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries, it doesn’t refer to how much currency they have. Rather, it refers to how productive their economies are. Developed countries like the USA and Japan are rich because their economies have a large proportion of high-productivity industries such as manufacturing, which produce a comparatively large amount of value in a short period of time. This means that workers receive higher wages and the government collects more tax which it can then invest back into the economy.

Developing countries are poor because a greater proportion of their economies are occupied by low-productivity industries such as textile production, agriculture and mineral extraction. One of the objectives of foreign aid is to help developing countries to transition from low-productivity economies to high-productivity ones.

Improving the productivity of developing countries’ economies can actually help to reduce the chances of despots hoarding the nation’s wealth for their own benefit. In a relatively poor country which relies on a few low-productivity industries (e.g. oil or mineral extraction), rulers can get by just keeping the small number of people which run these industries happy. As economies become more productive and therefore reliant on a greater number of industries, rulers must keep a greater number of people happy in order to remain in power, and are therefore set on the path from dictatorship to democracy.

By giving developing countries the nudge they need to reach this productivity threshold, foreign aid can pave the way to democracy and bring about a world where every government is willing and able to help their own people.


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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