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Can Donor Aid Help Peace Progress After the Fighting Stops?

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In the UN’s most recent Global Humanitarian Overview, it was projected that 274 million people would need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. And this estimate was made before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has displaced nearly one in four people in the country.

According to SIS professor Susanna Campbell and University of Konstanz professor Gabriele Spilker, international aid donors now allocate the majority of Official Development Assistance to help fragile and conflict-affected countries break out of the conflict-poverty trap. We caught up with Campbell, who is also the director of the Research on International Policy Implementation Lab, to ask a few questions about their research on aid allocation in post-conflict countries.

You can also read Campbell and Spilker’s full original article, “Aiding War or Peace? The insiders’ view on aid to post-conflict transitions,” with access provided by the American University Library.

What are the different types of aid considered in this research, and how do you define “post-conflict transitions”?
Post-conflict countries are those that have experienced civil war, negotiated a comprehensive peace agreement, and have held their first round of democratic elections. In post-conflict countries, donors have four main types of aid at their disposal: humanitarian aid, transitional aid, standard development project and program aid, and budgetary aid. Each of these types of aid has a different purpose and mode of delivery.
The purpose of humanitarian aid is to save lives, and donors tend to deliver it via third-party implementing partners that largely circumvent the government. Donors allocate transitional aid to build the government’s political institutions and capacity to make the war-to-peace transition and tend to allocate it to third-party implementing partners that collaborate directly with the government. Development aid aims to reduce poverty and build state capacity to achieve global development targets. Donors allocate development aid to third-party actors to implement development projects and sectoral programs in collaboration with the recipient government and directly to the government to build its service delivery capacity. Budgetary aid aims to support the government’s policies by providing unearmarked aid directly to the government’s budget.
To understand shifts in donor aid allocation patterns, we surveyed over 1,130 aid workers working around the globe. We asked these aid workers how donors give different types of aid in response to different pathways that conflict-affected countries take once they have signed a peace agreement. In particular, we were interested in how aid workers react to signals that a post-conflict country is progressing toward peace or regressing back to war.
You used an original survey-embedded experiment to observe donor behavior in post-conflict transitions. What variables were you exploring, and why did you opt for an experimental approach instead of a regular survey?
We are trying to understand how donors respond to changes in the conflict dynamics within a post-conflict country. Most donors aim to help post-conflict countries create institutions that will enable the peaceful resolution of conflict and help break the conflict-poverty trap. Much of the research on international aid has argued that donors attempt to impose their own agenda on these aid-dependent countries and do not respond to their particular conflict and peace dynamics.
We instead aimed to understand if donors allocate aid in response to conflict and peace events within post-conflict countries and, if so, how. Specifically, we asked the respondents if donors increased, decreased, or did not change different types of aid: humanitarian, transitional, development, and budgetary.
By embedding a survey within an experimental design, we were able to isolate how donors are likely to respond to changes in these conflict dynamics as opposed to other factors inside and outside of the post-conflict country. A normal survey could have given us information about donor aid allocation behavior, but we would not have been able to figure out what caused the behavior. In our survey-embedded experiment, the respondents were presented with one of four randomly-assigned hypothetical post-conflict country scenarios that varied in whether the country was progressing toward peace or regressing toward war. Because we randomly assigned these scenarios (and our sample of respondents was big enough), we are able to say that the difference in the post-conflict country scenario, and not some other factor, explains the difference in the respondents’ answers.
Were there any patterns or shifts in donor behavior that emerged after surveying 1,130 aid workers?
We find that when post-conflict countries signal that they are progressing toward peace by implementing the peace agreement and establishing security, donors increase development and budgetary aid that support the recipient government and transitional aid that directly supports continued peacebuilding. When post-conflict countries signal that they are regressing toward potential renewed war, we find that donors increase humanitarian aid that bypasses the government and responds to urgent humanitarian need, increase transitional aid that aims to revive the peace process, and withdraw budgetary aid that directly funds the government’s budget.
Your results revealed that aid experts are more certain about how donors will aid post-conflict peace than how they will halt a country’s return to war. Why do you think that is?
According to one respondent, even if donors want to reduce development aid, they may be unable to because aid “is often ‘locked-in’ for a several years (at least two) and will not change rapidly.” This is supported by the aid literature, which argues that donors are incentivized to spend money, not to withdraw it. Another respondent indicated that donors may be unwilling to reduce aid because they fear losing influence with the recipient government: “If the aid allocation is decreasing, there will obviously be a decrease in influence.” Another responded that increasing competition from non-traditional donors, such as China, may reduce the impact of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conditionality, making OECD donors even more reluctant to decrease aid: “Even if ‘traditional’ donors like OECD countries stop or decrease their aid to some countries due to some negative events, it has less impact than before, as these ‘new donors’ can supplement the absence of major donors by providing aid.”
Donors are playing a larger and more dynamic role in post-conflict transitions than previously known. What are the consequences of donors either bypassing governments altogether or directly supporting a post-conflict government?
I think that most donors and policymakers have known that donors at least try and respond to changing post-conflict contexts, but the scholarly literature has largely overlooked donor aid allocation behavior in these contexts. There are few clear negative consequences of directly supporting a government that seems to be responding to its population, protecting their rights, and building institutions that may help to sustain peace. If donors bypass these governments, then they are not building up the state institutions and can weaken the government, reducing its ability to serve its population.
If the government is committing acts of violence against its citizens or refusing to abide by political power-sharing agreements, then aid to these governments—directly or indirectly—supports and enables these policies. If the donor bypasses this government, then its aid may help the population in the short term but may make the population dependent on its aid in the long term and reduce the ability (or incentive) of the government to provide services to its citizens.
What are the policy implications of this research? How do donors evaluate whether or how they’re aiding war or peace?
Our findings have important implications for whether donors can—or cannot—use aid to help stop countries from falling back into war. On the one hand, sustained aid levels can directly or indirectly support a recipient government’s increasingly violent and repressive behaviors. On the other hand, if donors withdraw development aid in the face of rising violence, they may further destabilize the country’s peace process and inhibit peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding efforts. In addition, if OECD donors attempt to use aid to sanction post-conflict countries, these countries may turn to “non-traditional donors” (non-OECD donors like China or Russia) for another type of support, reducing the effect of OECD aid withdrawal. In sum, OECD donors may be much more successful at using aid to support post-conflict countries that are already progressing toward peace than stopping them from falling back into war.