Foreign Aid for Institutional Development?

In a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged that more of U.S. foreign assistance should have strings attached. Mr. Romney said that:

“Working with the private sector, the program will identify the barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurialism in developing nations…………. In exchange for removing those barriers and opening their markets to U.S. investment and trade, developing nations will receive U.S. assistance packages focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights.”

Romney also added that:

“The aim of a much larger share of our aid must be the promotion of work and the fostering of free enterprise. Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives and nations more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America’s own economy — and that is that free people pursuing happiness in their own ways build a strong and prosperous nation.”

I am of the opinion that an approach to foreign assistance embodying the spirit of the latter quote is more likely to succeed than the former.

The thing with institutions is that they often reflect already existing social equilibria. The courts, the police, the military, the legislature, the stock exchange, etc, all reflect established norms and moral claims that individual stakeholders have on the system and on each other. When Westerners foreigners come in (many of whom often have very little understanding of the social basis of the existing equilibria) they often tend to work at cross-purposes with the existing social compacts (a good example here is the phenomenon of mono-issue activism – think of Human Rights Watch fighting the World Bank at the expense of locals).

Granted in some parts of the world these very social compacts need to be changed (e.g. misogynous social systems). But even in such cases the changes have to be grounded in local political arrangements that are self-enforcing. Media pronouncements from Western ambassadors are not enough.

Many development academics and practitioners alike often neglect the fact that in European history (contemporary Western experience informs a lot of institutional proselytizing) political development (i.e. the creation of responsive and impartial bureaucratic institutions to manage the affairs of the state) was preceded by modernization and general economic development. In most of the developing world this relationship is reversed. Political development has become the independent variable charged with driving the process of modernization and economic growth and development.

As a result, the mantra seems to be that if only everyone could get governance right then everything would fall in place and we’d all be on the road to becoming Denmark.

May be this can be achieved. I remain skeptical.

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