Political and social cultures, historical relationships, and economic and security perceptions all shape attitudes towards aid in each donor country. When relationships with ruling authorities are strained, it is even more important for policymakers to address the concerns affecting domestic debates around assistance to recipient countries.
Targeted outreach to priority stakeholders
In situations where relationships with national authorities are ruptured, public communication must be a prominent component of donor development strategies. In times of recession and cost-of-living crises, with growing populist political movements sceptical of foreign aid, it is even more critical. Communication can be a challenge for development organizations, for reasons of capacity, resources and organizational culture. Many of the donor country officials interviewed for this paper noted knowledge gaps regarding the factors and stakeholders shaping public debate in specific policy settings, and the need for more sustained mapping of drivers of domestic opinion, as well as regular opinion surveys, to support policymaking in estranged contexts.
Our interviews highlighted the role that engaged parliamentarians and relevant legislative committees play in shaping development policies. Many experts thought that briefings from country-based aid officials, from both national and multilateral organizations, were underused and could help build awareness of development needs. This may be an important role for UN resident and humanitarian coordinators to consider.
Diaspora groups can also play a key role in shaping public opinion and national policies towards a country. For example, Venezuelan American and Cuban American constituencies have had a prominent role in shaping US policy towards Venezuela, while the Haitian diaspora in Canada has influenced Canadian immigration and development approaches to Haiti. The EU launched a pilot Global Diaspora Facility in 2019 to strengthen engagement with diaspora groups in development policymaking, but most national donors do not have institutionalized dialogue with diaspora groups. In countries with active and sizeable diaspora groups from estranged contexts, development institutions may explore options for structured engagement with such groups.
Mainstream media is the principal source of public information on development assistance in DAC donor countries. This is especially the case for FCS that receive only limited media attention – usually during major crises, where the focus is on urgent response. Outreach and engagement with print and TV journalists and producers should be a priority, to encourage more sustained and in-depth coverage. Social media, although to date not a key source for public awareness on aid, can be a potent tool for disinformation in polarized domestic donor settings and recipient countries. More broadly, proactive social media monitoring and use are especially important to counter anti-donor disinformation campaigns in politically estranged settings, as was the case, for example, in South Sudan.
Making the case to stay engaged means addressing citizens’ and policymakers’ concerns. While each donor environment is distinct, our interviews and available research found that four arguments in support of delivering aid in politically estranged contexts resonate with publics and politicians, while two recurrent concerns dominate. Understanding and proactively addressing these are critical to building political support for some form of development assistance, especially in a time of polarized domestic politics and public spending pressures.
Meeting individual human needs. US and European opinion surveys suggest that attitudes and pre-held beliefs on the value of aid to those in need are relatively stable. As one interviewee noted, ‘it’s not about the delivery methods – it’s about explaining the end goal’. This values-based orientation is double-edged: it can build support for assistance to those most in need; but it can also increase opposition to aid to authorities whose values are perceived to be opposed to societal values in donor countries. Making the case that aid will not go directly to such authorities – and working through UN and multilateral organizations – can help assuage public concerns. Moreover, surveys suggest that people attach more importance to information on the beneficiaries and outcomes of aid than to statistics around the number of people in need, amounts spent or effectiveness in broad terms. Framing development aid around targeted groups, especially women and young people, can also help build support for aid.
Threat of instability spilling over. In donor countries where migration is a politically salient issue, preventing refugee flows has become a resonant public argument for remaining engaged in politically estranged situations. Forced migration is not the only consequence of instability. As the war in Libya showed, crisis and conflict can have destabilizing regional and global effects, as illicit arms flows, contraband goods and human trafficking cross land and sea borders. Critical trade and economic relationships are ruptured. In 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU public opinion polls ranked peace and security as the most-pressing challenge for EU development cooperation, rising from third place in 2020.
As the war in Libya showed, crisis and conflict can have destabilizing regional and global effects, as illicit arms flows, contraband goods and human trafficking cross land and sea borders.
Preventing crisis spillover has been and remains one of the most powerful practical arguments for remaining engaged. In politically estranged situations, however, it makes the design and implementation of aid a higher-profile and more contested task, involving political, security and trade interests and actors as well as those involved directly in humanitarian aid and development. Investing in building knowledge among key domestic institutions and interested groups is essential, as is challenging the argument that instability can be contained at no cost within the neighbourhood of a crisis, as the Afghan and Syrian refugee crises have demonstrated.
Navigating geopolitical competition. Geopolitical competition is a growing factor in donor policy debates. In politically estranged settings, prospects for international divergence are high. For example, China continues to provide significant development assistance to national authorities facing international criticism for serious governance or human rights abuses, such as the military juntas in Myanmar and Sudan. Russia – traditionally a limited aid provider – has since 2014 sought to increase its diplomatic and economic engagement in Africa, especially around arms sales and mining contracts, as well as private military companies aligned to the government of President Vladimir Putin, focusing in particular on the Central African Republic and Mali. Competition for influence in the Middle East and North Africa among Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye and the United Arab Emirates has shaped the focus of their predominantly bilateral development assistance to states in this region.
As the donor landscape becomes more complex and diverse, the importance of geopolitical considerations is likely to grow, especially for policymakers and parliaments in donor countries. Remaining engaged in countries that are, by dint of their size, location or resources, strategically relevant – such as Chad, Ethiopia, Libya and Mali – may reflect donors’ calculation that full departure is a greater risk.
Moreover, remaining engaged in some form may have a positive impact on recipient-country populations’ attitudes towards a donor, even where relations with national authorities are difficult. Research on US aid in 45 African countries has shown that health aid is independently and consistently associated with more favourable attitudes towards the US among recipient populations. Conversely, politically estranged settings where relations rupture can negatively affect popular attitudes towards donor countries, as increased preferences in Mali for China as a model over the US and France illustrate.
Value for money. Stagnant aid budgets, high inflation and cost-of-living crises have put further pressure on donor governments to demonstrate the effectiveness of aid. In politically estranged situations, the value-for-money debate can be particularly intense within donor policymaking processes, given the high costs and practical difficulties of delivering aid and the challenges of monitoring and demonstrating results at scale. Officials who work in such settings pointed out that carefully designed development programmes may involve lower costs than large-scale humanitarian interventions and may mitigate aid-dependency risks. In newly independent Timor-Leste, for example, health outcomes improved and delivery costs fell when health services were delivered via standard service agreements (Chapter 5). Such examples can highlight both the financial and impact value of interventions that make greater use of local capacity than traditional approaches.
Risk of legitimizing unlawful or abusive regimes. The risk of aid legitimizing an unlawful or abusive regime is one of the most preoccupying concerns for policymakers in politically estranged situations. These concerns can include whether aid enhances a regime’s international legitimacy – an objective some believe to be a priority for the current military junta in Myanmar, for example; whether aid might embolden further human rights abuses – for example, in Afghanistan; or whether aid might enable a regime to ignore its governance responsibilities in favour of security and military spending, as in the example of South Sudan.
A key finding of this paper is that the provision of aid does not significantly impact international or recipient populations’ perceptions of national authorities. Research instead suggests that people’s attitudes are shaped as much by perceptions of national authorities’ trustworthiness, fairness and shared social beliefs as by what they deliver. There are some limited indications that aid delivered directly to local communities may positively influence attitudes towards local leaders and administrations, although this has not been tested in politically estranged contexts. Commissioning or drawing on empirical data that demonstrates little if any link between aid and local attitudes towards national authorities in recipient countries is an option donors may consider. Moreover, demonstrating that carefully targeted community development assistance helps local populations’ resilience, and supports local and bottom-up accountability demands, including demands to ruling authorities, can help build support for aid as a more effective strategy to navigate estranged settings than withdrawal.
Corruption concerns. Misuse of funds is a highly sensitive issue for donor governments and their publics. Research confirms that corruption is one of the most salient issues shaping donor public opinion on aid to specific states and their authorities. Corruption involving government officials and refusal to tackle graft regularly result in donors suspending aid programming, especially direct budget support. Fragile states are particularly vulnerable. In politically estranged situations, making the case that aid is bypassing government systems can help address concerns about elite corruption. Illustrating how aid modalities can be designed to help prevent funds from being diverted may also assist. Above all, being able to pre-emptively demonstrate that sufficient oversight is in place to respond quickly and effectively to instances of corruption can help diminish perceptions of risk (Box 7).