The explosion in a Beirut portside warehouse containing over 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on August 4 has done its bit to light more fires under Lebanon’s ruling powers. With the blast still bloodily fresh and traumatic – the destruction of the city’s port with over two hundred deaths and thousands injured – promises of assistance and messages of solidarity were conveyed. A donor summit of fifteen government leaders was cobbled together in haste with French President Emmanuel Macron leading the show. “Assistance should be timely, sufficient and consistent with the needs of the Lebanese people,” went he words of the communique. But it was to be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency.”
Aid is very much a tool of politics. Used to affect change, it often ends up having its own distressing consequences, entrenching a set of other power interests more amenable to the donor and enervating to the recipient. Governing classes in the recipient state are not so much replaced as redeployed; the canny and guileful adapt, donning new clothes for the institution approved by those providing aid.
When models of aid are celebrated, the common example is that of the Marshall Plan, advertised by its proponents, US Secretary of State George Marshall, and Secretary of Commerce Averell Harriman, as both noble yet self-interested. By providing aid to a devastated Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, the US tax payer would be inoculating the patient against the Communist virus while making the world safe for capitalism. Marshall put forth the case in an address to Harvard University during the course of receiving an honorary degree, a speech that has come to be associated with the aid and reconstruction plan that bears his name. “Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all.”
In its post-colonial context, the donor-aid paradigm has its specific, troubling features. Former colonies, for instance, tend to receive more from the former colonial power than those lacking those ties. Sentiment is less important than attractive conveniences.