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Considerations on Power and International Aid Relations

Michael Kelly, SJ & Daniel Solymári - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Sep 16th 2021

1This present study considers international aid, that is, the institutionalized forms by which people’s conditions are improved. It examines charity systems from the point of view of political power, starting from the concept that international aid was historically born along with the appearance of the idea of public affairs and public service, in the spirit of international relations. Therefore, in this sense, aid is an element of politics, whose original scope was born out of the interaction between nations and right up to the present it occurs significantly among states and political institutions.

But to what extent does political power determine this element within its own scope? Can aid be a political operation that does not function according to the logic of power? Can we talk about selfless, vested interest-free relations in a superstructure drawing on dominance, building on dominance? Is there any such thing as selfless aid that is without power, without political-economic considerations? That is, can we ever “give” without “asking” something in return for it?

The choice of subject matter for this study springs from our hypothesis that the strength of the party offering support (that is, the donor) and their power position toward the supported party or recipient is perhaps the most significant characteristic of aid relations, a key element of successful cooperation.

Introductory thoughts about power

Our premise, starting from ancient natural philosophy,  is that things have a certain quality, a nature (physis), for which they were designed, and which best describes them. If, to briefly summarize political affairs, it is in the nature of politics (and politicians) that they strive to acquire power, make decisions and defeat their opponents, then what can be the nature of international aid, born within the superstructure of politics? However, before describing the power relations present in aid, let us first briefly review its ancient source, the manner in which the political participants’ power came into existence, as well as their decision-making mechanisms, thus tracing the aiding regime’s formation history.

Who is the enemy, what power is capable of causing harm, are key questions within the functioning of systems that are made up of communities with an organized identity (peoples, nations, states); that is, communities striving for political and legal autonomy.  We could also phrase it this way: Who has the power? Who leads, directs, who has the right and power to decide, and who can pose a possible risk regarding these? The relationship of nations, kingdoms, then states has been determined in all ages by their size, power, their capacity to enforce their interests. Before the modern concept of the state was established (from ancient times up to the modern industrial age), the ruler and the ruling dynasty possessed their territory, and did not perceive any obligations toward their subjects. As Pál Engel puts it, these were political systems at the free disposal of the ruler, with the idea of serving the common good never emerging.[1]

The exceptions to these were the ancient Athenian and Roman states, where mutual responsibility appeared in an inchoate form, even though this was rather narrow and limited regarding both the territory and those involved, since the “opportunities” of exercising power within Athenian democracy only applied to the citizens of the polis, and only the elite could fill the leading positions.

On the other hand, if we consider our subject matter, it is important to highlight these, as the institution of res publica, that is, public affairs  appeared at this time. Thus, striving to achieve or maintain power (and obeying it) permeated political activity in all ages, becoming the foundation of international relations. As Thucydides wrote about the “state principle” employed by the Athenians in their debate with the Melians during  the Peloponnesian War: “As the world goes, right is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”[2] Also in the speeches of Demosthenes, the Athenian politician, the dilemma of injustice caused by the uneven power balance that existed between the strong and the weak gained a special significance: “Rights are frequently determined by how the strong behave toward the weak”; “The laws do not have the necessary regard for the unequal situation that has arisen between the weak and the strong”; “Thus states can acquire strength and power according to their own strength.” These are quotations from his speech For the Megalopolitans (Oration XVI,353 B.C.).

However, the idea of peaceful coexistence was manifested in most of the  various forms of ancient Greek and Roman diplomacy. In the system of foreign relations and official contacts, respecting and appreciating the other party, and aiding them if necessary, gained a special significance. Even though economic cooperation, politics and defense (primarily as a consequence of the Greek-Persian conflict) was always considered a subject of special emphasis; the issues of alliance, friendship and good services also stood in the forefront of bilateral relations. It was at this time that the archetype of diplomacy as we employ it up to this day was born, and it further evolved during the time of the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantine diplomacy.

This was the time when the principle of the necessity of vested interest-free cooperation was established, since in the Mediterranean basin, in North Africa as well as Asia Minor, vital relations had to be established and maintained over a great variety of geographical terrain. However, this policy, which also contained elements of public service, as well as recognizing a friend in the other nation, almost completely vanished over time, only to reappear after the 17th century. After all, the kingdoms established in the Early Middle Ages were organized on the principle of regnum – the country as the dominion of the rex, “king.” In this system, the regnum was the king’s possession, and the king did not act in order to serve the common good; he had power over his land without any obligation toward the people.

The 17th century – in particular the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – can be considered a milestone in the history of statehood. This was the time when the actual state, or more accurately, the concept of state that we use more or less up to the present day, arose.  (In the Hungarian language, the word for state was only born in the age of “language renewal” as  the Magyar form of the Latin status and the German Staat).

Even though absolute monarchies still existed in Europe, this new concept was fundamentally different from the power structures of earlier ages: the ruler had to serve the good of his country and act in its public interests. This principle reached its peak during the French Enlightenment: the citizens of the state are equal, so the state must perform its tasks for them in the interest of the common good. The “empire-type” establishments were replaced by systems of nation states without an overall ruler.

As Joseph S. Nye, American political scientist, coiner of the concepts of hard power and soft power, has explained: “In international politics no one has the monopoly of the use of force, … it is the realm of self-help.”[3] During the Enlightenment, the establishment of systems based on cooperation and agreement was promoted. This was the context in which the system of states was rebuilt within the framework of a new “social contract” (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau).

Thus, by the 19th century, two paths became markedly distinct from each other: on the one hand there was the Realist school, according to which the great and nurturing state protects its citizens with a significant and independent military force and defense potential, and on the other hand the Liberal school, which rather believes in a global society and the connecting role of international organizations.

One example of  a state seeking its  way was Japan; Japan’s foreign policy of the 1930s was initially driven by the intention of territorial acquisition; then, after the blows they suffered during World War II, the island nation state became one of the leading commercial powers not possessing a military force aimed at the subjection of others. It was the speech of Obuchi Keizo, Japan’s former Prime Minister, that constituted the peak of this “conversion,” when, at the end of the 1990s, at a conference on Asia’s future, he said the following: “It is my deepest belief that human beings should be able to lead lives of creativity, without having their survival threatened or their dignity impaired.”[4]

Nevertheless, power has remained the fundamental condition of reaching the point of decision and persisting with it; it is the aim of persons engaged in politics and after acquiring it, they will also have to be capable of holding on to it in face of others. According to Max Weber’s classic definition: “Domination … is a probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons.”[5] Thus, in Weber’s interpretation, power is a tool (or as he frequently put it, an opportunity), by which we can enforce our will even in face of the other’s resistance.

Thus, in international politics, increasing importance was attached to moral questions such as responsibility for others, global democracy, cosmopolitanism. By the 1960s, international organizations that were established in the spirit of mutual responsibility (such as IMF, OECD and the World Bank), as well as aiding relations among the states, became prominent.

The age of social love?

By international aid, we mean the cooperative relations in the course of which typically official state parties – and at times non-governmental (faith-based or civil) organizations – provide another country, its civilian or church representatives, with various resources, money, material, professional or technological aid or support in order to enhance that country’s capacity. Such cooperation can result in so-called humanitarian aid, provided during a humanitarian or natural catastrophe, or a consolidating-developmental recovery form of aid.

This can be accomplished in the form of a donation or credit, through implementing projects or programs, or occasionally in kind. In such cases, the party in need of help (recipient) expresses a request, which the helper (donor) responds to without delay,  acting in a way specifically relevant to their needs, without setting conditions. The donor’s altruistic attitude drives the gesture, at times even to their own detriment (that is, they do not profit from it; on the contrary: it involves financial expenditure, work and effort).  The donor countries are driven to act this way by their inner value system, the demands of conscience or  faith-based values. Their acts happen as a result of taking responsibility, pro bono, free of vested interests, out of neighborly love.

However, aid relations that fit the above description occur only in the rarest instances. In the case of bilateral aid, the donor typically ties their support to  suiting their own best interests. In the course of such types of cooperation, even though the supporter’s needs are understandable, the principle of selflessness is violated, and a kind of power element appears.

And here, we have reached one of our key questions again: In a philosophical approach, what characterizes the nature of aid, or putting it more simply: what is its purpose?

Purpose of aid

The motivations for contributing vary considerably, differing in accord with age and country (and often by the needs of the  offeror of aid as well). But is this an appropriate approach, given its variety, and strongly based on individual aspects yet also driven by interests? After all, the essence of helping in the broadest sense ought to be purely  a matter of supporting the parties in need with material or intellectual goods, supporting those in trouble. Providing aid is a process in which the helper does not gain any profit, their contribution is made directly, in a personal form, but the recipient directly profits from it.

In Platonic thinking, this was a moral foundation, which was later continuously linked to law and political theory. According to the definition of Ulpian, Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuendi – “Justice is the constant and perpetual will to give to all their rights.” According to Christian moral terminology and thinking, in the context of God’s creation, it is an act of just distribution (iustitia distributiva), in accordance with which we give our neighbor (whom God created in His own likeness) that which restores their human dignity.

Thus, in Christian thinking, social justice is an ancient basic principle, part of natural moral law, one of the cardinal virtues, supplemented by the virtue of prudence (prudentia), so we contribute to elevating the other with our rational capacity that is derived from love. The phrase ‘social love’ (dilectio socialis) was what St. Thomas Aquinas called the bending down, turning toward the other, according to the teaching of Christian social justice; thanks to this social love, humans can fulfill themselves freely.[6]

Humans are social beings, thus in society, individual and community are interdependent. This is how St. Augustine described the state’s justice. According to him, political communities, if they lack social justice – as a condition derived from their structure and nature – are nothing but simple robber gangs: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”[7]

Social love is the highest, universal criterion of social ethics, on which Pope Pius XI reflected as follows: “Hence, the institutions themselves of peoples and, particularly those of all social life, ought to be penetrated with this justice, and it is most necessary that it be truly effective, that is, establish a juridical and social order which will, as it were, give form and shape to all economic life. Social charity, moreover, ought to be as the soul of this order, an order which public authority ought to be ever ready effectively to protect and defend.”[8]

At the crossroads of global solidarity

In the 20th century, international aid that operates in accordance with the ethos of selflessness resurfaced following a long absence. Its origin was the so-called “Four-point Inauguration Speech” that Harry S. Truman, the American president, delivered at the beginning of his second presidential term, on January 20, 1949, in which he laid the foundations of a new perspective for European (developed) states.[9] He announced a “bold new program,” whose impact, according to his promise, would be felt in the short term. The European Recovery Program that was linked to the name of George C. Marshall, U.S. Secretary of State, provided the framework for the practical realization of these ideas and for international development support, the system of international aid. Multilateral institutions like the IMF, OECD or World Bank, established their international development practice, drawing on this line of thinking.[10]

However, already in the so-called Marshall Plan, significant aid conditions appeared: the most significant of them being that upon entering into contracts, cooperation with American companies was made obligatory.[11] In the enormous aid undertaking of the United States – beyond the philanthropic sentiments and commercial goals, which were to become one of the primary post-Cold War motivations – national security and security policy interests already presented themselves. “Especially after 1961, emphasis was also officially placed on moral and humanitarian motives, even though the distribution of foreign aid in practice was dictated to a great extent by national security considerations.”[12]

Other states, such as Germany, strove to fit into the Western-European alliance system,: this determined German foreign politics and international aid for years, or even decades. The United Kingdom and France directed their attention much more toward their former colonial territories, considering it their moral obligation to support the nations that formerly belonged to the “body of the nation.” The continuously strengthening “Nordic states established their foreign aid program with clearly expressed reference to moral and humanitarian obligations. The basic view was that rich countries ought to help poor countries. This was the same way of thinking that inspired the development of the Nordic welfare states, where the goal was to improve conditions for poor and resource-weak groups in their own populations.”[13]

If one takes into account all these priorities, interests and motivations – even though it is generally agreed that offering aid should in principle operate based on needs – nevertheless one must conclude that unconditional, interest-free aid contributions are rare. The idea of sending aid can be generally derived from a combination of supporters’ desires and humanitarian aims reflecting on the need of those needing support. In 1969, the Pearson Commission concluded that the aid projects characterized by strong commercial considerations, besides the moral aspects, actually make the donors stronger in the long term. [14] The analysis of the Brandt Commission also corroborated and elaborated on this, emphasizing that the continuous donation of aid to “southern” countries results in a dependence on aid that supplies the economies of donor countries in the northern hemisphere with stable sources of raw materials.[15]

Interest as the tool of power

In aid relations, the donor party possesses considerable power over the aided party. To a certain extent, the recipient always remains vulnerable, depending on the donor. It is from the donor that the recipient receives their condition-dependent support (which is often broken down into details which frequently emerge after the agreement).

It is to the donor to whom they make their account, for whom they complete their reports – it is the donor’s profile of expectations they have to meet. This is undoubtedly a vulnerability, a dependent situation just as, on a personal level, the patient is vulnerable, depending on the healthcare institution’s personnel and technical capacities. And we have not even mentioned compatibility of expectations yet.

One of the most frequent elements of compatibility is the aim to invigorate the other party’s economy.: When the economic actors of the given country need to be involved in the aid project, this often does not happen for a number of reasons (i.e., the impossibility of transporting tools and their warranty service, supplying parts, locally installing them, and so on). Therefore, very frequently, a response given to a need cannot possibly meet the donor’s so-called “support coherence.” Prescribing elements of conformity within the frame of a tender or a project (economic or transparency conditions) is pointless if they cannot realistically be followed and kept. After all, needs do not arise according to the donor’s desire and logic. In these cases, donors ought to shape expectations with considerable flexibility, fully cognizant of their responsibility.

The necessity to meet the donor’s value system is an equally critical point. These are conditions, in  which the recipient would have to meet moral or political conditions. The most frequent condition is financial and economic transparency, accountability, living up to the Western norms of financial performance, or expectations regarding democratic politics, or sometimes even demographic policies or forms of ideological imposition. However, not infrequently, the northern hemisphere’s democracy model and its social organizational system only functions in its own context; it cannot be transplanted into southern countries.[16] Certain “Western” considerations are simply incompatible in the “East”; they cannot be applied in the territories where the aid is intended. This is always a vast responsibility, which has been pointed out with great sensitivity in the works, among others, of Amartya Sen, or in Alan Ryan’s writing On Politics, drawing on fieldwork experience, in which the author argues that a state or organization should never act with a moral upper hand or in a manner exclusively deemed right by themselves.[17]

Concluding thoughts

All in all, international aid is a multi-faceted process in which extremes are not at all rare: for example, the Hungarian-born Peter Bauer (who was involved in Margaret Thatcher’s government) or later Friedrich Hayek,[18] both of whom denied the moral foundations of aid motivation. According to them, neither individuals nor states have any moral obligation to support others; the idea of distributing goods can only emerge in the case of unjust inequality. Bauer not only claimed that continuous aid can make the recipient countries fall into a vicious circle, the trap of aid dependency, but he categorically rejected the practice of developed countries offering support. According to Bauer, the differences in life quality stem from what the individual countries deserve, and this has to come from their individual endeavors and efforts.[19]

All this highlights the intricacy of the system of international relations, and within this system, the complexity of the issues concerning aid, regarding which, very often the questions themselves are divisive and the answers are decidedly confrontational – as Joseph S. Nye suggests in his previously quoted work. Principles and manners of approach differ. However, on the basis of the “humanitarian imperative” – Christian-rooted, and later rediscovered in the 20th century – no party with an interest in providing international aid has any other choice but to avoid further suffering for the vulnerable, and contribute, as far as their means allow, to appropriately helping those in need in whichever manner the aid recipients deem it right for themselves.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.9 art. 10, 0921: 10.32009/22072446.0921.10

[1] Cf. P. Engel, Beilleszkedés Európába, a kezdetekt?l 1440-ig, Budapest, Háttér Lap- és Könyvkiadó, 1990.

[2] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Bk 5. 105

[3] J. S. Nye, Understanding International Conflicts, New York, Harper Collins College, 1993, 3-10.

[4] K. Obuchi, “Opening Remarks”, in JCIE (The Asian Crisis and Human Security. An Intellectual Dialogue on Building Asia’s Tomorrow), Tokyo, Jcie, 18f; cf.

[5] M. Weber, Economia e società. Teoria delle categorie sociologiche, vol. 1, Milan, Edizioni di Comunità, 1961, 52.

[6] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, De caritate, a. 9.

[7] Cf. Augustine, City of God, IV, 4.

[8] Pius XI: Quadragesimo anno (1931), 88.

[9] Cf. H. S. Truman, The Point Four Program, in

[10] Cf. M. Gronemeyer, “Helping”, in W. Sachs (ed), The Development Dictionary, London – New York, Zed Books, 1992, 55-74.

[11] Cf. G. Behrman, The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Reconstruction of Post-War Europe, London, Aurum, 2008.

[12] J. Degnbol-Martinussen – P. Engberg-Pedersen, Aid: Understanding International Development Cooperation, New York, Zed Books, 2003, 8.

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] Cf. L. B. Pearson, Partners in Development. Report of the Commission on International Development, New York, Praeger, 1969.

[15] Cf. J. Degnbol-Martinussen – P. Engberg-Pedersen, Aid…, op. cit.

[16] Cf. K. Griffin – J. Knight (eds), Human Development and the International Development Strategy for the 1990s, London, Palgrave MacMillan, 1990.

[17] Cf. A. Ryan, On Politics. A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, London, Penguin Books, 2017.

[18] Cf. F. von Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty 2. The Mirage of Social Justice, London, Routledge – Kegan Paul, 1976.

[19] Cf. P. T. Bauer, Dissent on Development, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1976.

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