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#AshokaBookTower – ‘International Aid and Democracy Promotion’ – Written by Prof Bann Seng Tan, the book is a powerful revelation of foreign aid and political liberalisation

Crafted in a powerful and thought provoking manner, this book is a must-read for students of international relations, more so of democracy peace and promotion.

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5 November, 2020 | 5 min read


International Aid and Democracy Promotion investigates the link between foreign aid and the promotion of democracy, using theory, statistical tests, and illustrative case studies. The book challenges the field of development to recognise that democracy promotion is unlike other development goals. With a goal like economic development, the interests of the recipient and the donor coincide; whereas, with democratisation, authoritarian recipients have strong reasons to oppose what donors seek. The different motivations of donors and recipients must be considered if democracy aid is to be effective. The author examines how donors exercise their leverage over aid recipients, and, more importantly, why, using selectorate theory to understand the incentives of both aid donors and recipients. International Aid and Democracy Promotion will be of great interest to academics and students of development and democratisation, as well as policy makers with authority over foreign aid allocation.  

In conversation with the author, Bann Seng Tan, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Ashoka University. 

Please give an insight into your book International Aid and Democracy Promotion: Liberalization at the Margins.  

Many years ago, I was teaching at Queens College, City University New York. I invited political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita to give a guest lecture in one of my classes. I expected him to reject the invitation but was pleasantly surprised that he accepted the invitation. It turned out he has personal ties to and fond memories of Queens College.

 I asked about his research and was surprised at his interest in foreign aid. The topic was far removed from my dissertation focus on democratic peace. Back then, as a PhD candidate, I was on the lookout on new research interests. Intrigued, I started to pay attention to the politics of foreign aid. I was fascinated by the complexity of the politics behind development even though the absolute values of foreign aid, relative to national budgets, are trivial. 

I learnt an important lesson from Bruce that in some political situations, the signal that is important is the fact there was an agreement rather than the absolute amount that was agreed upon. In aid-for-policy deals, the absolute monetary value of the foreign aid is typically small. However, the fact that both the donor and recipient must agree in order for the deal to exist is significant in itself. This key insight is what I applied to the book.  

The book seeks to understand the conditions under which aid donors choose to apply diplomatic pressure upon aid recipients. What accounts for the willingness of aid donors to exert pressure only on some recipients and not others? If we can understand the bargaining dynamics between donors and recipients, we can identify those that are susceptible to donor pressure. What is more, we can then use this information to nudge authoritarian aid recipients towards democracy. This book articulates a strategy to do just that. 

What was the motivation behind writing this book?We already live in an age of feckless democracies and resurgent authoritarianism. Compounding this is the pandemic, where I expect the world to turn even more authoritarian as people give in to their fears. Not everyone is content to celebrate the end of the liberal international order. This book is my small attempt to push in the other direction.  

Please talk about both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies you have used in this book to support your argument.

I use both qualitative and quantitative methods in the book. The argument advanced in the book requires me to classify potential recipients according to their bargaining leverage. This is done in order to identify a set of countries that at different points in time, may be amenable to democracy promotion. Using statistics from cross-national data, I provide evidence that some recipients can be persuaded to politically liberalise in exchange for aid. I extend the model to differentiate between the economic and geostrategic value of recipients. I also account for the regional dynamics of Asia and Africa. Qualitatively, I conduct case studies that illustrate the situations when donor pressure fails (the case of Egypt) and when it can succeed (the cases of Fiji and of Myanmar). 

“The different motivations of donors and recipients must be considered if democracy aid is to be effective.” Your comment. 

A key concept I inculcate in my classes is the incentive structure of key political actors. Not every actor shares the same objectives. The authoritarian leadership of aid recipients oppose the political reforms that donors seek. Assuming they want the aid money, what counteroffers in lieu of democracy promotion can they make to donors in exchange for the desired aid? 

 Likewise, actors, being strategic, can deliberately misrepresent their public preferences. Aid donors may claim publicly that they seek democracy promotion while accepting deals with authoritarian recipients that exclude political reforms privately. In other words, the decisions of donors to accept an aid deal that does not involve democratisation, is more revealing of the true preferences of donors than their public declarations. I focus on their deeds, not their words. 

The point is that any serious attempt to promote democracy must consider both the disinterest of donors and the pushback by authoritarian recipients simultaneously. 

How do you strategically use foreign aid to nudge authoritarian aid recipients towards political liberalisation? Your argument.  

We should take both the reluctance of Western donors and the pushback by recipients seriously. Since political liberalisation hurts authoritarian recipients, they can be expected to offer alternative policy concessions for the aid and in lieu of democratisation. Those recipients who have the economic and strategic attributes that donors’ desire should have an easier time making counteroffers.  

Donors, on their part, accept such counteroffers because democracy promotion is less valuable than the economic and strategic policy concessions that recipients might also offer. For instance, the US might seek Pakistani cooperation in counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and the political liberalisation of the Pakistani regime. When the US is forced to choose between a democratic Pakistan that refuse to cooperate in counterterrorism or an authoritarian Pakistan that support American counterterrorism, it will choose the later. This preference is not unique to the US, the data suggest most Western donors operate in a similar manner. This means that Western donors value democracy promotion only as in so far as it does not affect policy concessions with a higher priority.

Putting the calculus of the two sides (donors and recipients) together, I infer that some recipients like Egypt, will have leverage against the West and are effectively immune to donor pressure. It also implies some recipients, like Fiji, will lack the attributes to make counteroffers attractive enough to the West. This implies these “secondary recipients” are more likely to liberalise. Thus, secondary recipients should be the proper emphasis of democracy aid. If we filter recipients by their leverage, democracy promotion with aid need not be a lost cause.   

Any anecdote while writing the book that you wish to share.  

The core argument was fleshed out in the two years of my visiting assistant professorship at William and Mary. The book itself, however, took over five years to write. There were two periods when circumstances facilitated productivity. The first was from 2016-2017 or the years spent living in Bogazici University, Turkey. It was also the period when Turkey accelerated its turn to authoritarianism.  The second period was the first four months of 2020 at Ashoka University.  It was also the period of the pandemic and the inept responses by those in authority.  

I suppose when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! 

Would you like to talk a little about your current and future projects? 

Even though this book is done, there remains the task of book publicity, of which this interview is part of!  

My next project is to return my dissertation on the democratic peace and work on its conversion into a book manuscript. After that is done, which will take some time, I aim to restart my secondary research project on the political economy of natural disasters.  

Anything else you would like to share.  

Ashoka University generously funded Open Access for this book. This means students can get a digital copy of the book for free.  

I thank Ashoka University for that funding. Not many universities are willing to invest into their faculty at a time of budget crunch induced by the pandemic. For that, I am grateful. 

The writing of my first book has been instructive. There are nuances I am learning that I was not aware of beforehand.  I will learn from this and be more efficient the second time round.  

To know more about Bann Seng Tan, click here. You can order the book here

Reviews of International Aid and Democracy Promotion

“International Aid and Democracy Promotion is the all-too-rare example of thoughtful theorizing and testing that is crafted into a powerful, politically meaningful, plausible program for improving political liberalization. Bann Seng Tan has contributed significantly to the theory of foreign aid; to rigorous empirical tests of his theoretically-developed hypotheses; to nuanced regional and case study analyses that nail down what can work and what cannot work in inducing greater political accountability; and he has done so in a way that opens the path to actual improvement in the well-being of people around the world. International Aid and Democracy Promotion does what the best social science should and can do. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how to promote better governance or, for that matter, better social science.” — Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Julius Silver Professor of Politics at New York University, USA 

“This is a must-read book for scholars and students of democracy promotion. Bann Seng Tan employs both quantitative and qualitative evidence to test and further develop a political economy model that incorporates geopolitical salience, domestic politics, and the bargaining power of the governments that receive foreign assistance — not just those providing it. The book explains the success and failure of democracy promotion efforts in specific cases, but also suggests how donors can deploy such assistance more effectively.” — Michael J. Tierney, George and Mary Hylton Professor of Government and Director of the William & Mary Global Research Institute, USA

“This book offers a refreshing perspective on the international dimension of democratization and delineates the conditions under which democratic aid can, in fact, be effective. Using selectorate theory and informed by strategic leveraging and bargaining processes among donors and recipients, the author combines originally compiled big data analysis with careful case studies from Africa and Asia (as well as wide range of recipient countries such as Myanmar, Fiji, and Egypt). He meticulously demonstrates the importance of the incentives of both the donors and the recipients in this “game of democratic aid.” This book will be of great value not only to the foreign aid community but also to politicians and policy makers, who, in this world of persistent democratic backsliding, do not lose hope and aim to navigate effectively so as to “nudge” the autocrats in the right direction.” — Mine Eder, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University, Turkey 

“This book ties theory and the application of aid in the promotion of democratization to selected country case studies. The topic is both interesting and timely for testing a number of hypotheses in the literature including how such aid favours incumbent regimes and the inability of donors to stay focussed on original goals over time. It is also thoughtful in its reflections on older questions like the linkage between aid and development on the one hand and democratization on the other. This book is a welcome addition to the studies on political development in general and the circumstances surrounding the onset and consolidation of democracy.” — Narayanan Ganesan, Professor of Southeast Asian Politics at Hiroshima Peace Institute at Hiroshima City University, Japan 

About #AshokaBookTower 

The #AshokaBookTower campaign showcases books written by our faculty and staff. The campaign aims to highlight the rich variety of subjects and intensive scholarship these books represent. An in-depth conversation with the author will also give a glimpse into what went into the writing of the book. This will be a recurring affair and will highlight some of the newest launches as well as the old collection.  Do follow us on social media (Facebook | LinkedIn | Twitter | Instagram) to know more about the campaign!

Written by Shreya Chatterjee

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka