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

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

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5 thoughts on “Aid: The Double-Edged Blade

  1. As many people are not aware of the diversity of the continent Africa, one big problem for the more developed countries in Africa is that the brand of the continent as a poor basket-case overshadows the brands of the single countries.But with the ongoing FIFA World Cup I think this lack of awareness can turn out to be a good thing. Because a successful World Cup, during which the media shows pictures of happy people, new stadiums, developed cities etc., will not only lead to a stronger South African brand but also to a stronger brand for the whole continent.

  2. It’s important to distinguish between state and non-state assistance. “Foreign aid” in American parlance is a government activity, albeit often channeled through non-state actors such as NGOs. Bono is a gray area: while a private citizen engaging non-state actors, he aimed his efforts at more government aid, and got it from Washington.Still, no discussion about assistance can occur without mention of such actors as churches, universities, citizen diplomats, and a host of other non-state activities that are the most pronounced feature of US-African relations, that is, democratic (with a small “d”) engagement in both directions. Using nation-state “branding” to characterize the impact of these actors at best overstates the role of government and thus is misleading.

  3. This is such an important issue to raise. Thanks Simon. While GLGarland makes a valid point from the donor point of view the recipient is just as branded by the NGO’s good works as the nation state’s. Was ever their a place as branded by outsider’s needs as the African continent?

  4. Dr. Cull: To clarify, I’m not referring to the donors’ (or white man’s) point of view, but that of Africans themselves. How do they view their own churches and schools and local NGOs (in contrast to the nation-state)that generally have roots in the West–often in the U.S.–but are their own?

  5. No, Nick, there is no other place as branded by outsider’s needs as Africa. That is why I think it more prudent to increase discussion on the actual value of aid to Africa. What is it’s present purpose? Have the unintended consequences of providing aid overshadowed it’s original intent? And why are donors so unwilling to reevaluate the situation? Simon’s article only furthers the growing argument for a reevaluation of aid in Africa, and it is my thought that in his concern for the continent’s image, he too should be arguing against aid. The vicious aid cycle perpetuated onto Africa creates a belief in the West that aid is both essential and more needed than ever before. It is my understanding that holding this view in one hand while wanting an improved image on the other is what perpetuates our ability to allow foreign aid to be given with one hand and to take away with another. To combat the branding crisis (and many of the economic issues that are tied to it), less aid is what will eventually lead to a reversal of the image of Africa as a basket-case.

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