Is overseas aid an instrument of soft power?

I was giving evidence to a UK House of Lords select committee on aid as an instrument of soft power yesterday (watch the meeting here), so spent a bit of time researching what “soft power” actually means. It turns out it’s not just a fancy word for “influence” – though you probably knew that already – but rather Joseph Nye’s rather precise definition of how to achieve one’s objectives through attraction and co-option, rather than through (or alongside) other means such as coercion and purchase. For Nye, foreign aid is purchase power, and as such not strictly a soft power tool. Was he right?

It’s rather hard to examine power in the abstract, as it can only really be measured in relation to a specific policy goal or objective. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is mandated to reduce poverty overseas – a difficult but relatively narrow purpose. But if you look at the work of DFID, other UK government departments, the EU, of which the UK is a leading member state, other international organisations of which it’s a member, and other UK-based organs such as NGOs and businesses, it is not a great stretch to argue that one of the UK’s international policy goals is an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world. If such an unwritten goal does exist for the UK – and I believe it does – then it would ultimately be good for business, good for reduced defence spending, good for the achievement of globally shared public goods such as atmospheric carbon reduction, and good from a moral perspective as well.

So the debate about whether aid is an effective soft power instrument comes down ultimately to a debate about whether aid can legitimately be seen as soft power (rather than “purchasing” power as Nye would have it), and whether it actually does help create a better world.

After spending a couple of hours debating this issue with some well-informed and often incisive members of the Select Committee and three fellow “witnesses” (Jonathan Glennie, Ian Birrell and Mark Pyman) it seemed to me fairly clear that:

  • If the currency of soft power is values, institutions, culture and policy, then soft power is exercised by the choices you make and the actions you take, not by what you say.
  • By allocating a chunk of the government budget to overseas aid – along with substantial amounts of private giving by UK citizens – we are sending a message of international solidarity that presumably does increase the UK’s stock of capital internationally, and thus its soft power to influence the directions and nature of progress e.g. the reason the UK was asked to co-chair the recent UN High Level Panel on Post-2015 was because of our prominent role in aid and our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI as aid.
  • As a relatively prosperous, liberal, democratic and (dare I say it?) peaceful nation, the UK has much to offer a world wishing to evolve in those directions – i.e. it offers models from which others can draw ideas for their own political and economic evolution – while hopefully avoiding some of our errors.
  • Incremental improvements towards peace, prosperity and liberal democracy are non-linear and as such cannot be “bought”. So if aid is an instrument of power and influence it is at least partly a soft power instrument. But this also means we should avoid focusing the discussion on “aid” or money, and rather think about how the UK’s engagement taken as a whole, helps to create a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic world, including, e.g.:
    • Eliminating the money laundering and other nefarious financial practices which are still done in the UK
    • Contributing to improving international frameworks and systems for supra-national governance
    • Improve the regulation of UK-listed businesses operating in developing contexts, so their behaviours contribute to the right kind of progress there
    • Working in partnerships with those in developing countries – governments, businesses, civil society – as well as others who have the capacity to influence outcomes there.
  • Rather than limiting the discussion to the “UK’s soft power”, we should see it as an issue of “using soft power as part of an international approach to progress”, i.e. not to improve the UK’s standing, as some of the committee members put it, but rather to use the UK’s standing in collaboration with others, to contribute to progress in the wider world.
  • We need to recognise that progress towards a more democratic, peaceful and sustainably prosperous world is non-linear, and is by no means assured or even probable; it needs a long and sustained contribution at multiple levels, and to some extent remains an article of faith because the evidence or metrics are not yet available – we won’t be able to judge success for some years yet…
  • … But that uncertainty seems a risk worth taking, provided we exercise all due diligence and care in the choices we make, and monitor and adapt our approaches as we go. Perhaps, if I am right in elucidating from its various actions that the UK has an unwritten goal of contributing to an increasingly and sustainable prosperous, peaceful and democratic world, then it is time the government makes that a more explicit policy goal against which it can test its policies, and to which it can be held to account.

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