I have recently read an interesting article by The Guardian, investigating the future of aid to be utilized as a means to spread ”universal good”. The article introduces a new committee called the House of Lords select committee on soft power and the UK’s influence, in order to “promote Britain’s reputation, protect its interests and ensure security in a world where the military methods of the last century or two don’t always work” (committee chairman quote).
The article states,
The temptation in the aid business has been to use it as if it were hard power – paying for strategic advantage and economic preferment.
Aid has often been used as a quid pro quo, forcing countries to privatize key industries and basic services, to eliminate subsidies to certain competitive industries, to open markets to cheap imports, the World Bank forcing conditionality on national loans, and big business opting for tax breaks and means to extract natural resources.
The opposite has also been true. Aid has been used in promoting democracy and civil rights, democratization and freedom of speech, free healthcare and education, and peace in conflict countries. But often there has been strings attached in what constitutes correct practice. The committee promotes,
Aid is not used for political or economic gain, and it is right to do so – the best aid relinquishes control to recipients who take the lead in spending it.
Soft power is the concept by Joseph Nye to describe ways in which countries nudge and cajole rather than pay or use force to further their interests.
The nature of soft power is that it is more nebulous. Instead of safeguarding domestic interests, the select committee investigating the future of aid should view it as a global good. Thereby, aid should not be used to promote a country’s own interests.
It should be used to promote international public goods and universally agreed values, which implies a move from bilateral objectives towards a more rules-based international public finance regime.
Concerns could be raised regarding which values will be deemed universal values and how these will be enforced, particularly if you consider the constant rhetoric by the aid industry that country ownership is key in aid effectiveness, but better to nudge that to force. It will be interesting to follow the progress of the soft power attempts and see whether these (most likely) Western values will freely take hold without the use of more than a little soft power.
For more on Joseph Nye, click here.