The best books on using foreign aid to do good in a realistic way

Bann Seng Tan Author Of International Aid and Democracy Promotion: Liberalization at the Margins
By Bann Seng Tan

Who am I?

Bann Seng Tan is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Ashoka University. His research interests are on the causes and effects of democratization, the politics of foreign aid, the political economy of natural disasters, aid in decentralization, resurgent authoritarianism, and the democratic peace. His policy proclivities revolve around the defence of the liberal world order. Democracy promotion is but one way to push against authoritarianism. 


I wrote...

International Aid and Democracy Promotion: Liberalization at the Margins

By Bann Seng Tan,

Book cover of International Aid and Democracy Promotion: Liberalization at the Margins

What is my book about?

To advance democracy realistically, we should account for the reluctance of Western donors and the pushback by recipients. Since political liberalization hurts authoritarian recipients, they can be expected to offer alternative policy concessions for aid in lieu of democratization and donors, eager for policy compliance, may not do enough to promote political liberalization. This means 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. The latter group should be the proper emphasis of democracy aid. If the West filters recipients by their leverage, democracy promotion with foreign aid need not be a lost cause.   

The books I picked & why

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The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics

By Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (lead author), Alastair Smith,

Book cover of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics

Why this book?

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith emphasize the desire of leaders to seek political survival after all else. The authors show how democratic and autocratic leaders respond to the political institutions that they are embedded in, by having systemically distinct policy proclivities. The academic version of the theory is in their book The Logic of Political Survival. The Dictators’ Handbook is the version meant for popular consumption. It is full of examples of leaders making policy choices that benefit their political survival at the expense of their own people who they profess to rule for. I assign the book to illustrate the theory in classes in Comparative Politics. The examples in the book, all of which are non-fiction, are always popular with undergraduate students.


The Taming of Democracy Assistance

By Sarah Sunn Bush,

Book cover of The Taming of Democracy Assistance

Why this book?

Democracy aid deals with governance-related political reforms. Using statistics and case studies of the US, Tunisia, and Jordan, Bush understands the failures of democracy aid through the lenses of organizational politics. On the donors’ side, Bush documents how the professionalization of democracy aid forces nongovernmental groups to prioritize projects with quantifiable outputs that bureaucrats want. On the recipients’ side, Bush demonstrates the attempts by authoritarian regimes to control, restrict and co-opt the nongovernmental groups that seek democratic reforms. Buffeted from both directions, such nongovernmental groups respond by avoiding serious projects that challenge the authoritarian regime. Instead, they prioritize symbolic projects that look good to the bureaucrats in the donors but fail to promote genuine democratization. It is organizational politics run amok. 


Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance

By Jason Brownlee,

Book cover of Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance

Why this book?

Besides foreign aid, there is also military aid. Brownlee’s book is a study of the American-Egyptian alliance during the 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. His insight is that the US strategic interests are better met with an authoritarian, instead of a democratic, Egypt. Pay attention to his account of the Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2005-2007 and the 2006 Gaza War. Both are instances where US and Egyptian preferences diverge. In the first case, the US backed down once it realized further liberalization could allow the Muslim Brotherhood, an anti-American party to come to power. In the latter case, the US was able to arm-twist a reluctant Egypt as Israeli security was at stake. These eye-opening examples support his claim that the American-Egyptian alliance supports authoritarian survival.


Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

By Dambisa Moyo,

Book cover of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

Why this book?

Development aid is a type of foreign aid that is directed at the economic development of recipient countries. The failures of government-to-government development aid in Africa are Moyo’s focus. She notes that Africa is the only region that is regressing in major socio-economic indicators. She argues such aid distorts African economies, enables corruption, and incubates a culture of aid dependency. African governments can afford not to provide public goods because their revenue is guaranteed by development aid. To remedy such externalities, Moyo wants to end development aid to Africa. Instead of aid, she prefers free trade with the West and foreign investment from China. This book is remarkable for its willingness to challenge the conventions in development aid. Sometimes, we need to call a spade a spade. 


Aid Imperium: United States Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Post-Cold War Southeast Asia

By Salvador Santino Fulo Regilme,

Book cover of Aid Imperium: United States Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Post-Cold War Southeast Asia

Why this book?

Regilme studies the negative impact of US foreign aid on Philippines’s and Thailand’s human rights. He argues that the shared policy expectations between the donors and recipient governments and the domestic legitimacy of recipient regime jointly determine the extent of human rights abuse. The recipients with strong domestic legitimacy need only use the foreign aid on legitimate military threats. This was the case for the Philippines and Thailand in the 1990s. When the domestic legitimacy of the recipient regime is weak, that foreign aid is strategically repurposed to include the repression of the political opposition. This explains the human rights abuse in Thaksin and Arroyo administrations. The book helps us understand how authoritarian aid recipients can manipulate foreign aid to seek political survival. 


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