November 01, 2006

Buying Votes

According to the Washington Post, there's decent evidence that the United States has often tried to curry favor with poor countries on the UN Security Council by sending an influx of aid their way. "A two-year seat on the Security Council... can generate a 59 percent spike in U.S. assistance." Such legalized bribery was well-documented in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when the United States was fishing for the Security Council's blessing. Other examples abound: During the Cold War, Tanzania enjoyed a number of sweet IMF loans while serving on the Security Council until the country started voting against U.S. interests in 1976.

Obviously one could make a number of points about U.S. imperialism here—or point out once again that the IMF largely exists to shore up American power—but the Tanzania example brings to mind a point about foreign aid. The "sophisticated" liberal thing to say these days is that development assistance has worked very poorly in the past, so we should be skeptical of it. And, indeed, the aid-industrial complex has plenty of problems. But it's also true that Western aid has often been used to advance geopolitical goals rather than to help poor countries develop, and one shouldn't merely look at the Cold War and conclude that foreign aid is hopelessly ineffective.

UPDATE: For a fun variation on the theme, check out this story in the Times about how foreign aid is being used to support American factories: "Behind the scenes, politicians have ensured that companies in Alabama won federal contracts to make billions of condoms over the years for AIDS prevention and family planning programs overseas, though Asian factories could do the job at less than half the cost." Note, by the way, that the Alabama plant owners, and not the workers, are the primary beneficiaries here.
-- Brad Plumer 5:31 PM || ||