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UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran: A Cambodian listening to a radio donated by a Japanese non-governmental organization.1992 Kompong Speu, Cambodia

Self-interest vs altruism in East Asia’s development aid

Anders Riel Müller | 03 July 2013

Criticism of East Asia’s alleged self-interest-led development aid can also be applied to Western donors. This may teach us lessons about our own history.

The traditional picture of aid flows from the North Atlantic axis to the Global South is undergoing a significant transformation. Apart from Japan, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) is made up of countries in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Combined, the DAC members disburse 90% of total Official Development Assistance (ODA) and the Committee has been a principal forum for setting ODA standards since its founding in 1960. Yet the old balance is changing. New countries are becoming increasingly involved in aid activities and development finance. In 2010, South Korea joined the DAC as the first former ODA recipient. This signalled a shift in power balances, with East Asia emerging as another major ODA donor region.

There has been a lot of criticism of East Asian development aid for focusing more directly on economic development and physical infrastructure improvement rather than good governance, human rights and poverty alleviation. South Korea is following in the footsteps of Japan’s earlier aid programmes, relying heavily on tied bilateral aid and preferring conditional loans to grant aid. . These practices, some claim, are indicative of Japanese and South Korean self-interest rather than the needs of recipient countries. If this is true, it suggests that North American and European aid is based more on altruistic motives. But is that the case?

Is focusing on good governance, human rights, and poverty alleviation more altruistic than economic growth and physical infrastructure? Or are these simply normative expressions of what aid ought to be? Could it not be said that the European focus on for example human rights is also driven by self-interest disguised as altruism? In Northern Europe, we pride ourselves of our human rights, so we wish to promote them as universal values. In South Korea, on the other hand, what most people feel pride in is its rapid economic ascent from one of the poorest countries to one of the richest in only a few decades. This is reflected in the way that both South Korea and Japan have historically set aid priorities based on their own development experience. I argue that the West has done this, too, but with different priorities.

In a forthcoming article Aki Tonami and I study the trajectories of South Korean and Japanese environmental aid based on an autobiographical framework. This begins with a notion of policy formulations as autobiographies or more precise as ‘imaginative acts of remembering through which the authors (policymakers and aid practitioners) address the audience to persuade them of their particular version of an experience’. This means that studying aid policies tells us more about donor countries’ self-image than about recipient countries’ needs.

We found that South Korean and Japanese aid is, to a large extent, guided by a combination of domestic political concerns and the need to become recognized by the DAC community. In short, our conclusion was that environmental aid is guided by self-images: who we think we are, and what we would like others to see us as. The main narrative in Japan and South Korea’s autobiography is that rapid industrial transformation and focus on infrastructure development were key aspects of their developmental success so this is central to what they offer developing countries. However, they are also concerned about how the other major aid donors perceive them, and this can be seen in the gradual alignment with DAC principles and guidelines by both countries.

The debate on self-interest versus altruism is a normative discussion, in which, by placing Japan and South Korea in the self-interest category, European and North American donors position themselves as the altruistic donors. This helps us to maintain our self-image as moral leaders in development aid at a time where our financial leadership is under threat from new and emerging donors. This does not mean that criticism of Japanese and South Korean development is unwarranted, but that it is directed in the wrong directions. A more pertinent criticism could focus on the particular narratives of rapid industrial transformation and development promoted by Japanese and South Korean policy-makers. For example, South Korea is never shy of highlighting its rapid economic rise, also known as the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ as a story of near perfect development. Other, less perfect stories, about early industrialization funded by US military contracts during the Vietnam War, 27 years as a military dictatorship, high levels of corruption, and the massacres of protesting workers and peasants throughout its modern history are muted and sidelined.

In the same way, we may think of our own policies and practices. What do they tell us about ourselves and our history? What is emphasized and what is muted? For example, when we want to promote human rights or good governance in our aid activities, we perhaps do so because this is in line with how we see our own developmental strengths and thus a universal good. There is plenty to criticize about South Korean and Japanese aid, just as there is about European aid, but the self-interest criticism is not the way to go. It says more about us than about the emerging donors that we are so invested in placing ourselves on moral high ground.

Photo credit main picture: UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran: A Cambodian listening to a radio donated by a Japanese non-governmental organization.1992 Kompong Speu, Cambodia