WHAT IS AID: A critical reflection

Raana Zafar, 04 November 2020


This piece is an effort to reflect on those aspects of international cooperation that make aid, supposedly ‘an expression of global compassion’, into a complex system which is increasingly eyed with scepticism (Ramalingam 2013). The complexity that surrounds aid is unavoidable given the multitude of factors at play in the lifecycle of aid provision, not all of which can be discussed in the scope of this piece. However, in prioritising the aspects that make me critical of aid, I have succinctly contextualised aid here to give it definition. Shedding some light on when this aid industry emerged, I will attempt to investigate the primary motivations behind various forms of aid and briefly pinpointing upon two aspects of aid which breed suspicion and pessimism: (i) selection criteria of aid recipient states, and (ii) the disproportionality of aid. While aid literature provides a much longer list of factors which make foreign aid a contentious topic, the evidence that surfaces around these two aspects of aid represent the most naked manifestation of donor states’ interests at play, thereby proving that factors other than human needs drive the allocation of aid.

Defining aid

The term ‘Official Development Assistance’ (ODA), coined by the OECD in 1969, is most commonly used when referring to foreign aid, even though it only accounts for ‘aid given by state governments or their executive agencies to the governments of developing countries governments’ , either bilaterally or multilaterally through international agencies such as the United Nations (UN), World Bank etc. (Riddell 2008, p. 18). While there are quite a few other sources of aid, such as philanthropic foundations, rich individuals, and non-governmental organisations, referred to as ‘private aid’ (Easterly 2008), the general cynicism is more pronounced towards ODA, given the provision and receipt of aid in this case becomes primarily a political decision, inevitably influenced by national and strategic interests of donor governments. Another categorisation of aid comes from the purpose for which it is provided; the two overarching types being ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ assistance (Murphy 2016), where the provision of the former is still not questioned as much as the latter, especially in the event of disasters (Riddell 2008). A probable explanation for this selective acceptance of humanitarian assistance being obvious and transparent motivations behind aid, coupled with urgency of requirement where direct outcomes are visible, invite less doubt. The need for this kind of aid led to the formalisation of the aid industry with the formation of UN, whose major challenges were the refugee crises of that time (Loescher 2017).

Finding its feet in emergency relief, foreign aid has come a long way, where the distinction between humanitarian and development aspects of aid have blurred, overlapping in many instances. This has led to unimaginable growth of ODA following the ‘turn of the century’ to the point where now the global aid system supports ‘15000 donor mission in 54 recipient countries per year’ (Howes 2011, Ramalingam 2013, p. 3). To me, the blurring of distinction between these two forms of aid does make sense as Riddell puts it; ‘there is a continuum from more immediate and direct to less immediate and indirect ways of saving lives by reducing human suffering’ (2008, p.123). My difficulties then, in associating aid more with altruism than with a self-serving mechanism, come more from situations where strategic and political interests trump even the most basic of human needs and rights, and determine the amount and destination of aid money. Here I am reminded of how accurately Ben Ramalingam (2013) defined aid as ‘politicised, uneven, and more of a global postcode lottery with few handpicked winners and many losers’ (Ramalingam 2013, p. 8).

Who wins the lottery and why?

A deeper analysis of aid allocation sheds light on which considerations inform this handpicking of aid recipients, revealing how the largest donors such as United States, Japan, United Kingdom and others use ODA as a tool to further their security, trade and commercial interests (Riddell 2008; Ramalingam 2013; Murphy 2016). In 2004, a third of all aid from the US went to Afghanistan, Colombia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan; countries of importance to US geopolitical interests (Riddell 2008). Furthermore, selection of aid recipients is also seen to be influenced by leading donors’ aid trends, e.g. for nine major donors, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan were among the top aid recipients between 2003-4, as they supposedly showed solidarity with US in the global war on terror. Now when such strategically significant recipients are also poorer countries as in the above examples, it is easier to appear outwardly altruistic with developmental motivations. But where that is not possible, as with Israel whose GDP per capita was higher than that of Ireland’s for two decades and continued to qualify as a recipient of ODA, one really wonders what selection criteria is being used (McGillivray in Riddell 2008).

Prevalent scepticism around aid is further heightened when the disproportionality of provided aid is realised. While Israel has a USD4000 GDP per capita and receives a total of USD24bn, how does one justify the poorest of countries such as Sierra Leone receiving less than USD2bn in the same time frame (McGillivray in Riddell 2008)? The Haiti earthquake of2010 was given $1,116 per person in aid while the most disastrous floods in the history of Pakistan the same year received $135 per person (Ramalingam 2013). The disproportionate funding for emergencies and other human rights violations around the world is a distressing reality with countless examples of even sharper disparities that exist with the world turning a blind eye to those being most violated.


Despite painting a grim picture of what aid represents, I am an advocate of foreign aid and believe that though impure[1], it is still a public good which reduces human suffering to a certain extent, even if in the most inefficient of ways (Roper & Barria 2010). The fact that reallocating aid in different ways to different recipients can potentially lift 80 million people out of poverty annually, while current allocation frameworks can only lift 30 million, reinforces the significance of the two aspects I touched upon (Collier & Dollar 2002). Acknowledging its inevitable political nature, aid needs to be re-thought, improved and done better.

[1] See Roper and Barria (2010) for the concept of impure public good.


Collier, P. and Dollar, D., 2002. Aid allocation and poverty reduction. European economic review, 46(8), pp.1475-1500.

Easterly, W. and Pfutze, T., 2008. Where does the money go? Best and worst practices in foreign aid. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 22(2), pp.29-52.

Howes, S., 2011. An overview of aid effectiveness, determinants and strategies. Development Policy Centre Discussion Paper, (1).

Loescher, G., 2017. UNHCR’s Origins and Early History: Agency, Influence, and Power in Global Refugee Policy. Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees, 33(1), pp.77-86

Murphy, S.P., 2016. Responsibility in an Interconnected World. Springer.

Ramalingam, B., 2013. Aid on the edge of chaos: rethinking international cooperation in a complex world. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Riddell, R.C., 2008. Does foreign aid really work?. Oxford University Press.

Roper, S.D. and Barria, L.A., 2010. Burden sharing in the funding of the UNHCR: Refugee protection as an impure public good. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54(4), pp.616-637.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Politik's editorial stance or the views of UNSW. 

Get to know the Author

Raana Zafar is a 2nd year postgraduate student at UNSW, studying a Masters in Development Studies. Raana has worked in the social sector for eight years and has a keen interest in working for the rights of the marginalised. International aid is a topic of interest for her because the industry thrives in the developing region to address the persistent socio-economic challenges that perpetuate poverty. This is Raana's first contribution to Politik Insights.

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