The theatrics of aid debates
On 16 April 2004, a young and idealistic politician read his inaugural speech as prime minister in the Spanish parliament. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had reached the premiership almost by accident, riding a wave of social anxiety over the previous government's political mishandling of a terrorist attack that struck Madrid days before the election, and which galvanised the yearlong popular protest over Spain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq. Zapatero's Socialist Party reached the polls armed not with an agenda but a vision for progressive change, both domestically and internationally. He followed a simple creed he had inherited from his grandfather, who had fought seventy years earlier against the military faction of General Franco: 'a limitless thirst for peace, a love of goodness, and the social betterment of the meek'. At home, they would use the power of government to build a more equitable and progressive society, enacting laws on dependents, marriage equality, or gender parity. Abroad, they would push an optimistic multilateralism that countered the post-September 11 narrative of clash of civilisations.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Spain had become a rising actor in the international scene; two decades of democratic consolidation and economic growth had enabled growing trade relations and a more vocal role within the European Union (EU). History had bequeathed it cultural and economic ties with both Latin America and North Africa, which made it a useful intermediary for the EU's new common foreign policy. Conservative prime minister José María Aznar had used his parliamentary majority since the year 2000 to actively seek a higher profile for the country. In the months following September 11, he became a staunch ally of President George Bush, lending Spanish troops to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invasion of Afghanistan, and then featuring in the infamous Azores Declaration on Iraq, together with Bush, Britain's Tony Blair, and Portugal's José Manuel Barroso. For the United States, these three leaders were their Western European allies in the Iraq dispute, and their support in the UN would be essential for the legitimation of any invasion. This granted Spain's conservative government a perhaps disproportionate amount of international clout as well as a growing level of domestic dissent. The anti-war protests that swept the world in early 2003 had a very partisan bent in Spain, amplifying the voice and presence of a new generation of Socialist Party leaders.
Against the backdrop of his predecessor's military adventurism and support for Bush's 'war on terror', Zapatero desired to fundamentally change course in Spanish foreign policy. While acknowledging the difficult security challenges facing Western countries, he believed that enhanced cooperation, not conflict, was the key to overcoming them. This included not only practical collaboration in matters of defence and prosperity, but also a grander aspiration to bring cultures – or, as he later put it, civilisations - closer together. His foreign policy was built around a strong pro-European commitment, a focus on Latin America and the Mediterranean, a loyal but critical relationship with the United States, and an unequivocal alignment with international law and organisations. It would also, crucially, 'make development cooperation an essential element of our foreign policy'. At the time, Spain's gross domestic product (GDP) placed it right outside the G-8 in international rankings, but the legacy of Franco's dictatorship and the focus on internal democratisation and growth had left the country punching below its weight on the international scene. In contrast to Aznar's choice of military and security tools for raising the country's profile, the new prime minister would focus on more charitable and humanitarian means.
Two months before his election as prime minister, Zapatero was invited to speak before the Spanish Coordinator of Development NGOs and the 0.7% Platform. These civil society organisations represented the strongest voices of a small but vibrant development sector that was highly dependent on the national aid budget. Towards the end of the conservative government's second term, the amount of overseas development assistance disbursed by Spain had stagnated at 0.24% of GDP. This was a not insignificant contribution of around $2 billion to international development, but it fell short of the decade-long aspiration to achieve the symbolic 0.7% target (which in Europe had been reached only by Nordic countries). At that meeting in February 2004, Zapatero promised to substantially increase foreign aid to 0.5% of GDP by 2008, with a further goal of 0.7% by 2012 if he was re-elected. Not only that, he would change the official name of the ministry under which the Spanish aid agency was located to 'Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation' to signal his commitment to a foreign policy focused on peace and poverty reduction. In a hearing at the parliamentary commission on international cooperation in June 2004, the new minister for foreign affairs argued that 'a democratic society can only feel proud of itselfwhen all human beings, men and women, around the world, enjoy the political, economic, social and environmental rights that we all want to enjoy'.
Once in office, the new prime minister demonstrated that his electoral promises were not empty ones. Albeit more slowly than anticipated, Spain's relative aid contribution doubled from 0.24% in 2004 to 0.46% of GDP in 2009. In absolute terms, this represented a jump from around $2 billion a year to $6.9 billion at the peak of 2008. In order to manage this increase, Zapatero enlisted the support of the Socialist Party's former head of NGO relations, Leire Pajin, who at 28 years of age became Spain's youngest ever Secretary of State for International Cooperation (four years earlier, she had become the youngest elected MP in the country). With some experience in the NGO sector, Pajin became the face of a new era in Spanish aid, defined not only by the growing budget, but also by a closer working relationship with civil society and reforms of the central agency responsible for disbursing and overseeing all aid expenditures. This last element was crucial, given how decentralised and chaotic Spain's aid system was, with virtually every public organisation from the ministries all the way down to universities disbursing foreign aid in one way or another.
In Spanish politics, Zapatero would be known in the following years for his love of symbols and subversion as a way of advancing a progressive agenda. Appointing a 28-year-old to oversee the country's foreign aid was just another powerful gesture in a list that included a cabinet with total gender parity and the appointment of a pregnant MP as defence minister. Some of these symbolic gestures were virtually costless, while others carried with them a hefty price tag. Changing a ministry's name doesn't seem major, until one realises the thousands of emails, web addresses, and mastheads that needed to be changed overnight. And this was nothing compared to the suddenly ballooning budget that Spain's aid agency would have to coordinate. However, that did not seem to be a major concern in those optimistic days of March 2004. A new progressive government was in place, and new progressive priorities would follow. Ultimately, the actual impact of the increased aid budget was a secondary consideration. The gesture – the signal – was what mattered most.
Zapatero's case illustrates a broader trend in the politics of donor countries, where public debates and political argumentation on foreign aid are rarely – if ever – about development. Instead of a substantial conversation, the voters and taxpayers are usually treated to a particular form of performance politics in which aid serves as a proxy for deeper, more ideological clashes between conservatism and progressivism. Political posturing takes over reality. The goal of this chapter is to illuminate these theatrics by unpacking the dominant discourse, revealing its most frequent tropes, and asking why it is that, of all public policy domains, foreign aid is so prone to be affected by completely unrelated calculations.
Is aid a partisan issue?
Before delving into the political theatrics of aid, let me offer an important clarification: basic development goals are not partisan. Whether we lean more to the left or right of the political spectrum has no effect on our desire for certain things, such as a paying job, good health, political freedom, low criminal activity, an impartial justice system, and certain means of helping those in need. These are all things that both progressives and conservatives would find desirable: they could disagree about the particulars, the form of regulation, or who exactly deserves what, but it is hard to disagree with development as the pursuit of fair markets, efficient states, and personal freedom. It is important to get this clarification out of the way because our public debates about aid are already incredibly politicised. But therein lies the key: our debates are largely about the volume and means of aid, not about the goals of development.
Going back to the Spanish case, the impact of Zapatero's socialist government on Spanish aid policy was not actually that exceptional. Political scientists have spent decades looking into the determinants of aid budgets and allocation, exploring all sorts of variables running the gamut from colonial history to domestic social expenditure. One of those variables under examination is the impact of political ideology and partisanship, stemming from the folk expectation that leftist governments are more likely to give aid generously than right-wing ones. This is an interesting conjecture, because there has long been an assumption in Western democracies that foreign affairs (which encompass foreign aid) are above purely partisan squabbles. However, the historical record flies in the face of that assumption. Nordic countries, many of which have been governed by social democratic parties for decades, are among the most generous donors. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have never dipped below the 0.7% threshold in the last twenty-five years, and at times have devoted more than 1% of GDP to overseas development assistance. Conversely, countries lacking strong social democratic parties, such as the United States and Japan, have consistently ranked below OECD averages in their relative aid contributions. This distinction was summarised by David Lumsdaine, who argued that governments project their domestic orientations onto the international scene. As with social spending at home, left-wing parties are more likely to increase aid spending abroad.
When taken outside specific cases, however, the evidence is much less conclusive, as different variables and statistical models are taken into account. A recent article does not find government ideology to be a significant determinant of aid disbursement when compared with other domestic and international variables. Earlier research found that the mere existence of a left-leaning party in power should not have an unmediated, direct effect on aid budgets: it is instead the development of a socialist welfare state and government social spending that mediates whether social-democratic governments actually spend more money on aid. That was the defining feature of Nordic countries compared with countries such as Austria, where left-wing parties had long governed without establishing strong welfare states. Yet another statistical analysis finds a significant correlation between changes in the economic ideology of ruling parties and the increase or decline of aid contributions, with a particularly marked effect on assistance to the least developed and lower income countries. The influence of partisanship on aid is not limited to the size of the budget alone. In the United States, for instance, aid to African countries is more likely to follow economic need and democratic achievement under Democrats than under Republicans: ideology in this case is the world view through which policymakers interpret the problems and needs of developing countries. It is, therefore, not uncommon to see self-identified progressive political parties such as Zapatero's increasing aid budgets while self-identified conservatives slash them. On purely ideological grounds, development cooperation can be seen as the foreign arm of the welfare state, as familiar to internationalists on the left as the military is to internationalists on the right. It makes absolute sense for fiscal conservatives and advocates of market liberalism to suspect the extension of state bureaucracy, which can only be financed through taxation or debt.
One might ask, however, whether the policy preferences of these parties are, in fact, representative of their voters and supporters. A project looking into the World Values Survey and the Gallup Voice of the People survey to assess contextual and individual determinants of public opinion on foreign aid in nineteen donor countries found that an individual's self-described position in the left-right spectrum had 'a significant effect on support for foreign aid'; agreement with closely related statements such as 'the poor are lazy' or 'the poor can escape poverty' also had statistically significant effects. In the United States, the Pew Research Center asked in 2013 which federal government programmes the public would increase, decrease, or maintain at the same level. Of the nineteen categories surveyed, foreign aid had the biggest partisan gap, with 45% more Republicans than Democrats supporting a decrease; the gap was in fact wider than for high-profile controversial issues such as unemployment benefits or public healthcare. This hyper-partisanship probably explains the widespread misperception among American voters about the size of their aid budget, which they estimated as 26% of the total federal budget in a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
The United States may be an exception in the donor community. Across the EU, voting publics are generally supportive of aid. A 2010 special Eurobarometer survey found that 89% of Europeans considered development cooperation to be highly or very important, a result that is roughly consistent with previous surveys. There was some variation across countries, with Swedes twice as likely to consider aid 'very important' as the Portuguese, for instance. However, the 90% pattern of support was remarkably consistent across EU members, regardless of the political party in power.
So, donor publics tend to be broadly in favour of aid, despite being exposed to precious little information about international development and foreign aid. What, then, would motivate someone like renowned development economist Paul Collier to claim that '[t]he key obstacle to reforming aid is public opinion'? It seems that there is a dichotomy between the long-term preferences of donor publics, which are likely supportive of helping the poor in developing countries, and the short-term debates of donor politics, in which political representatives run the gamut from the enthusiastic to the apocalyptic. Where does all the vitriol come from? And how does controversy come to displace actual voter preferences, let alone actual development outcomes?
The tropes of aid controversies
Our political debates about foreign aid could be seen as a very repetitive kind of performance, where roughly the same actors speak roughly the same lines with clockwork regularity. There are tropes on both the left and the right. The left-wing argument about aid, which was clear in the case of Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero, is about a vague form of internationalism, the kind supported by self-styled 'citizens of the world', who feel compelled to aid those starving children that feature in NGO ads. I will come back to the depth and veracity of this form of solidarity when I resume the story of Zapatero's aid budget in Spain. But the most pervasive, insidious, and – by far – entertaining claims definitely come from some corners of the conservative movement, where foreign aid has become a safe punching bag for those seeking to make a point or simply call for attention.