Putting Aside the "Humanitarian, Do-Good" Stuff

Though an AidData team observed an overall relationship between unemployment and aid commitments, this effect was strongly mediated by domestic politics.

March 11, 2011


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke “straight realpolitik” at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, urging the committee to “put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in” and recognize that the United States is “in competition with China.” Clinton argued that proposed budget cuts to U.S. foreign assistance would hinder the ability of the United States to compete for global influence. Reducing aid expenditures would render the U.S. less able to promote its national interests in international relations. By way of example, Clinton noted that the U.S.-based corporation Exxon-Mobil was being forced to fend off challenges from Chinese competitors following its recent energy find in Papua New Guinea. These comments were notable not because they represent a change in course for the Secretary of State. To the contrary, they continue the recent trend of couching foreign assistance in terms of national defense (in February, Clinton suggested that aid cuts would be devastating to U.S. national security).

What are we to make of this trend?

Last year, a group of AidData researchers presented a working paper at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting entitled "Foreign Aid in Hard Times" in which we developed some preliminary conjectures about the political-economic influences on aid effort – the size of a country’s foreign aid commitments relative to its overall economic size. One of our more interesting, if preliminary, findings was that economic hard times did not have a uniform effect on aid volume. Though we observed an overall relationship between unemployment and aid commitments, this effect was strongly mediated by domestic politics. In our cross national sample of donors, we observed that aid commitments in politically “Left” governments were much more susceptible to economic decline than were aid commitments in more conservative, “Right” governments.

We speculate that left leaning legislators see foreign aid as designed to promote development and help poor people in developing countries.  However, left-leaning legislators rely on support from labor interests and in economic hard times they find it harder to justify sending aid abroad when their core constituents are struggling.  However, right leaning legislators see foreign aid as a tool to promote commercial interests within their core business constituencies or as a tool to promote foreign policy goals of their country.  Hence, right-leaning legislators are less sensitive to unemployment when deciding on how much foreign aid to give.  While it may be true that left-leaning politicians look more favorably on foreign aid in general than their conservative counterparts, they find themselves in more of a political bind during economic hard times.

This got me to thinking about my William and Mary colleague, Maurits Van Der Veen. In a forthcoming book entitled Framing Aid, Van Der Veen argues that the way in which foreign aid is framed in political debates has important consequences for both aid volume and allocation. Is it possible that the increased vulnerability of aid budgets under left governments (compared to right governments) results, at least in part, from framing choices? Based on her recent comments, it certainly seems as if Hillary Clinton thinks so.

By Chris Marcoux, Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow at the College of William and Mary

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