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02.01.2018

Interview: Sarah Bermeo on her new book

 

Photo and Interview: Tiffany Goetzinger

 

You’re a political economist who has focused on the intersection of international relations and development, with a particular focus on relations between industrialized and developing countries. What inspired you to dig into the topic of donor country motivation?

Too many scholars were ignoring the self-interested motives of development: it was often argued that industrialized states pursued self-interest at the expense of development. However, as interconnections between states have increased, wealthier countries cannot insulate themselves from events in developing states. In many cases, industrialized and developing states should have overlapping interests in promoting development. I thought this shift toward development wasn’t being fully recognized. In particular, I thought the discussion of development was too often confined to foreign aid without thinking about how it also might affect other foreign policy areas, such as trade and climate finance- which I examine in the book.

 

I thought that was smart- it’s helpful to see how your theory can be applied to real life policy hot topics in the news like climate change and trade agreements. How did you go about the research?

I spent a lot of time reading what was already written, talking with policymakers (particularly early on, with trips to Honduras and Nicaragua) and studying the history of development policies. I then developed hypotheses and tested them with available data...

 

Yes, I couldn’t help but notice the formulas in the book! But you don’t really need to be an economist to understand it.

Where possible I put data in context with well-developed examples or case studies, such as the huge increases of British foreign aid (in the chapter on aid) or the fascinating history of the passage of DR-CAFTA in the trade agreements chapter. I also thought it was very important to put this in historical context, which is why chapter two goes back to the Marshall Plan and then discusses interactions between industrialized and developing countries during the Cold War.

 

Agreed. History helps put current strategies in perspective. Your description of development for the purpose of geopolitical power and the tactics taken up to prevent the spread of communism was really eye-opening So, what were your overall findings about what's happening in this new era?

I found that concerns for potential impacts from developing countries are driving foreign policy in industrialized states in areas such as foreign aid, trade agreements, and climate finance. In each area the analysis suggests that concerns for development are guiding policy, but in a self-interested way. Industrialized states wish to promote development where it will benefit themselves. This trend is new in the post-Cold War period and it grew after the 2001 terrorist attacks. It is also prevalent across industrialized countries. Donors don’t promote development where it will do the most good for recipients, but where it will do the most good for themselves. Arguably this is still a major pro-development step from the Cold War period, where states often propped up dictators in developing countries if they were on the “right” side. But it will also leave some states behind.

 

Right, because if some countries are gaining preferential treatment because it benefits the donor country, then inevitably that means a tougher situation for the competition. I was also really surprised by the chapter on climate finance, which noted that while bilateral climate investment agreements have benefits for both the recipient and the donor country, they’re not actually the most efficient way to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Organizations working on issues like climate mitigation and adaptation might need to isolate themselves from development priorities if they want to be most effective at their stated goals – otherwise funds may go where the donors most wish rather than where they will do the most good for climate.

 

So, how will policymakers, advocates, and academics use your findings?

The book shows that industrialized countries increasingly pursue policies that are both self-interested and development oriented. This helps reinforce the argument of policymakers that policies are more development-oriented than in the past. Many people do not support policies like aid because they don’t believe that they work; they have an outdated view of aid as propping up brutal dictators in poor countries during the Cold War. Of course, some foreign aid still goes to strategic allies, but there has been a significant shift toward pursuing development. Yet it also reinforces the point that development is pursued in the self-interest of wealthy states – another point made by policymakers particularly when they are trying to justify their budgets.

Another important point is that trade agreements may provide benefits beyond just trade promotion, which bears on current debates.

For academics, it points to the importance of ascertaining state’s motives and looking for changes in these over time – not assuming that long trends continue. Also, the need to think of issues like development as part of the self-interest of wealthy states. This could shift policy in various areas, such as shifting climate finance funding more toward development than using it where it can be most effective for climate mitigation and adaptation.

 

What next steps does the book suggest?

The findings suggest that we should re-evaluate how we measure effectiveness. In foreign aid, changing motivations may have led to a shift in how aid is allocated and the emphasis placed on producing development outcomes – studies of effectiveness should account for these changes in motivations over time. Past periods of ineffectiveness don’t necessarily mean aid will continue to be ineffective. Organizations working on issues like climate mitigation and adaptation might need to isolate themselves from development priorities if they want to be most effective at their stated goals – otherwise funds may go where the donors most wish rather than where they will do the most good for climate. The findings reinforce the need for rethinking international development organizations: many of these date from the Cold War period when motivations were very different. They are also often large bureaucracies, where change can be difficult. But it is time to rethink the role and structure of these organizations to meet the changing priorities and problems of a more globalized world.