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.   

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The books I picked & why

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 did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dictator's Handbook as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith's canonical book on political science turned conventional wisdom on its head. They started from a single assertion: leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don't care about the "national interest"-or even their subjects-unless they must.

Newly updated to reflect the global rise of authoritarianism, this clever and accessible book illustrates how leaders amass and retain power. As Bueno de Mesquita and Smith show, democracy is essentially just a convenient fiction. Governments do not differ in kind, but only in the number of essential supporters or backs that need scratching. The size of…

Book cover of The Taming of Democracy Assistance

Why did I love 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. 

By Sarah Sunn Bush,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Taming of Democracy Assistance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few government programs that aid democracy abroad today seek to foster regime change. Technical programs that do not confront dictators are more common than the aid to dissidents and political parties that once dominated the field. What explains this 'taming' of democracy assistance? This book offers the first analysis of that puzzle. In contrast to previous research on democracy aid, it focuses on the survival instincts of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that design and implement democracy assistance. To survive, Sarah Bush argues that NGOs seek out tamer types of aid, especially as they become more professional. Diverse evidence - including…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Jason Brownlee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Democracy Prevention as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When a popular revolt forced long-ruling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 11, 2011, US President Barack Obama hailed the victory of peaceful demonstrators in the heart of the Arab World. But Washington was late to endorse democracy - for decades the United States favored Egypt's rulers over its people. Since 1979, the United States had provided the Egyptian regime with more than $60 billion in aid and immeasurable political support to secure its main interests in the region: Israeli security and strong relations with Persian Gulf oil producers. During the Egyptian uprising, the White House did not…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Dambisa Moyo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dead Aid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the past fifty years, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Has this assistance improved the lives of Africans? No. In fact, across the continent, the recipients of this aid are not better off as a result of it, but worse—much worse.

In Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo describes the state of postwar development policy in Africa today and unflinchingly confronts one of the greatest myths of our time: that billions of dollars in aid sent from wealthy countries to developing African nations has helped to reduce poverty and increase growth. In…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Salvador Santino Fulo Regilme,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Aid Imperium as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Does foreign aid promote human rights? As the world's largest aid donor, the United States has provided foreign assistance to more than 200 countries. Deploying global numerical data on US foreign aid and comparative historical analysis of America's post-Cold War foreign policies in Southeast Asia, Aid Imperium provides the most comprehensive explanation that links US strategic assistance to physical integrity rights outcomes in recipient countries, particularly in ways that previous quantitative studies have systematically ignored. The book innovatively highlights the active political agency of Global South states and actors as they negotiate and chart their political trajectories with the United…

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