By Katie Cornish
In July, the UN released an interim report alleging Rwandan government support to the M23 rebels
in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UK, Rwanda’s largest bilateral donor, withheld scheduled
budget support, with Prime Minister Cameron setting out conditions for resumed aid. A few months
later, Andrew Mitchell released the funds on his final day as international development secretary, a
decision sparking much controversy. Two months later, Mitchell’s successor, Justine Greening, has
again suspended direct budget support to the Rwandan government.
On the surface, withholding aid from a government backing a rebel group guilty of raping women,
pillaging villages, and recruiting child soldiers seems obvious. If the Rwandan government has
resources to finance war in the DRC, then it must not need the UK’s budget support. But the decision
to withhold budget support may pack more than it appears, and relying on aid as a political carrot or
stick has the potential to be quite problematic for the aid effectiveness agenda.
In 2005, donors and recipient countries met in Paris to discuss aid effectiveness. The result was
the Paris Declaration, which highlighted five principles of ownership, alignment, harmonisation,
managing for results, and mutual accountability. The Paris Declaration was later followed up by
the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action, which renewed donor and recipient commitments to the Paris
Principles. At both forums, donors committed to using recipient government systems to deliver aid
wherever possible, directly supporting recipient development strategies and priorities.
So what does this have to do with Britain’s decision to withhold budget support from Rwanda?
There are a few key elements of the aid effectiveness agenda that the decision contradicts. First and
foremost is a commitment to mutual accountability. Under the Paris Declaration, donors commit to
“provide timely, transparent and comprehensive information on aid flows so as to enable partner
authorities to present comprehensive budget reports to their legislatures and citizens.” Not only did
the British government provide very little notice that aid would be withheld, in a matter of months
that decision was both retracted and reinstated. Treating aid like a tap that can be turned on and off
poses obvious challenges for effective budgeting and planning.
Secondly, the decision contradicts principles of alignment. Under the Paris Declaration, donors
agree to “draw conditions, whenever possible, from a partner’s national development strategy or
its annual review of progress in implementing this strategy.” Alongside this, additional conditions
require sound justification and should be coordinated amongst donors to the extent possible. Using
aid as a political bargaining chip contradicts commitment to agreed-upon conditions, risking an aid
culture where recipients must cater to ever-changing donor conditions. Furthermore, using aid as a
political stick may very well be ineffective when there is a lack of consensus amongst donors, as is
the case with the response to Rwanda.
Finally, the decision challenges the principle of ownership, whereby donors agree to “respect
partner country leadership and help strengthen their capacity to exercise it.” Principles of aid
effectiveness suggest that development should not be imposed by the West, but rather that
developing countries should own their development process. Once an agreement has been made
between donors and a recipient country, the recipient’s obligations are limited to the likes of demonstrating accountability for donor funds, establishing sound development strategies, and
working to strengthen institutions. If donors are truly committed to this value, than these should
be the only conditions imposed and donors should refrain from using aid to interfere in national or
This entry does not intend to condone the actions of the Rwandan government, but rather highlight
the dilemmas that policy makers are confronted with when it comes to the delivery of effective
aid. If one believes that aid should be completely benevolent and separate from politics, then they
must be prepared for these types of contradictions. On the one hand, donors face pressure to
achieve sustainable development results and good value for money through aid effectiveness. On
the other hand, they are encouraged by constituents and rights groups to use aid to send highly
political messages to support peace. But the reality is the two cannot often coexist. Aid cannot be a
bargaining chip for diplomacy and an effective tool for sustainable development.
At the end of the day, donors will have to make tough decisions regarding the use of aid. Should aid
be used as a diplomatic tool for peace in the DRC, at the risk of disrupting services and development
for the poor in Rwanda? Politicizing aid inherently requires donors to take chances. Should the
Rwandan government respond positively to pressures from the UK and others, it may yield positive
results for Rwandans and Congolese alike. Should it fail, the poor and vulnerable in Rwanda and
DRC may suffer. Donors can either approach aid with as much neutrality as possible, or take
responsibility for the short and long term consequences of politicizing aid. With a basket of both
hard and soft diplomatic tools available to donor governments, does aid have to be one of them?