Aid: The Double-Edged Blade

By Simon Anholt

Foreign aid, in many ways, gives with one hand while it takes away with the other.

I have often commented in the past about the unintended damage done to the international standing and, consequently, the long term prospects of poorer countries by well-intentioned charity promotion, and in particular the negative 'branding' of Africa by aid celebrities like Geldof and Bono. Over the decades, with the best intentions in the world, their relentless depiction of Africa as one single, hopeless basket-case has harmed the long-term development prospects of the whole continent even as it has boosted donations. After all, while many people would happily donate money to a basket-case, few will think it prudent to invest in a basket-case, buy products or services produced in a basket-case, go on holiday to a basket-case, or hire somebody born and raised in a basket-case.

This double-edged quality of aid is found wherever a richer community helps a poorer. In order to continue to assist poorer countries, donors feel it necessary to paint as distressed a picture as they can of the recipient: donor governments need to maintain the support of domestic taxpayers by persuading them that the cause is worthy, while charities and other NGOs need to keep up the level of voluntary donations. The more desperate they make the country appear, the more successful their programmes will become.

Rich countries, in this way, have exacted a very high price for their support of the needy over the decades: in effect, they take over control of the recipient country's international image as hostage or deposit, and set about degrading it as much as they can. Using their vast credibility, resources and media influence, donors project onto the public imagination an unbroken stream of corrosively negative information, images and emotions about the recipient country and its population, in order to prove that no cause is more heart-rending, more urgent, and more (nearly) hopeless. By the time their programme has moved on to the next deserving cause, the country's image may have been blighted for generations, leaving a powerful psychological and emotional disincentive to trade, investment, tourism and growth.

As has been observed by others, the foreign aid mechanism distorts and corrode the economies and administrations of recipient countries in the longer term, making it impossible for local producers to compete against a constant supply of effectively free goods and free money, and turning domestic governments into mere distributors of largesse.What we have failed to notice is how it also makes pariahs of those countries in international public opinion, stealing their dignity as proper states with history, culture, nature, wisdom, language, learning and human endeavour by branding them as nothing more than victims and beggars for decades to come. Instead of images of natural and human beauty and variety, the 'outside world' is fed an unvarying diet of conflict, starvation, disease and despair; a world of dust and misery. Nothing could be more unhelpful for a country that needs to build an economy through the stimulation of trade, tourism, investment, and productive cultural and political relations with other states.

Most donors appear to believe that a somewhat bleak portrayal of the recipient country is necessary at the start, but once its economy has 'got going' and the 'good news stories' start to emerge, this image will be reversed. Yet such is the lag between perception and reality, and the intrinsic preference of the media (and public taste) for the shocking and the tragic over the hopeful and the promising, the job of undoing the negative perceptions will take far longer and prove far more intractable than creating and enhancing them in the first place. National standing, as many examples show, is always far quicker to decline than to improve.

Furthermore, the 'continent brand effect' of Africa - about which I have also written at length - provides a strong, indeed an overwhelming, stimulus towards a negative rather than a positive imagery for all its component nations.

I am of course not arguing against aid. It is essential, and more is always needed. Nor am I impugning the good intentions of those that give. But I do believe that these unintended consequences of the generous instinct should be taken seriously into account, and the 'bargain' of foreign aid re-evaluated accordingly. I believe it is now necessary to create new forms of assistance that make a different and less harmful bargain with their beneficiaries. Rather than deliberately degrading the nations we help, we must devise a more equal relationship of collaboration, partnership and mutual respect, both in public and in private. Public opinion in the rich world is surely ready for it: and indeed, the idea of "helping people to build something" is already beginning to creep into the marketing messages of charities, and will perhaps replace the old and ultimately unproductive idea that we are being asked to throw our money into a bottomless pit of despair and corruption.

It must be possible to support and promote at the same time, to equip the recipients of our aid for independent growth instead of stunting their prospects: to give, in other words, with both hands.

Simon Anholt is the leading authority on managing and measuring national identity and reputation, and the creator of the field of nation and place branding. He is a member of the UK Foreign Office's Public Diplomacy Board, and has advised the governments of some 30 other countries from Chile to Botswana, Korea to Jamaica, and Bhutan to the Faroe Islands. His website is www.simonanholt.com.

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