In a fiery May Day speech in La Paz, Bolivian president Evo Morales announced that he was expelling the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), accusing it of conspiring against his government. He did this despite the fact that USAID shut down its democracy and governance programs in the country several years ago in response to Bolivian government objections. The Americans then pledged to work only in apparently uncontroversial areas like health and environmental conservation.
Bolivia's decision to end U.S. assistance to the country after nearly 50 years of USAID presence reflects the ideological tensions between Bolivia's first-ever indigenous-led government and Washington. But Morales isn't the only one targeting aid providers. Last September, Russia asked USAID to leave, making similar accusations of political interference. Earlier that year, the Egyptian government charged a group of Americans, Egyptians, and other employees of five Western democracy and rights organizations with illegal activity, driving almost all of the Americans out of the country.
These cases are only the most visible examples of growing pushback by governments around the world against foreign assistance they deem too political. Dozens of governments have proposed or enacted measures to limit or block foreign aid flows to domestic groups, vilified local non-governmental organizations for working with foreigners, and harassed or kicked out international NGOs.
By its very nature, foreign aid is politically sensitive. Efforts by one country to change basic elements of life in another through injections of financial and technical resources are inherently intrusive. The modern aid enterprise that emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s attempted to address this sovereignty concern by limiting their efforts in two crucial ways: they would pursue only socioeconomic objectives -- economic growth and other public goods like basic infrastructure and health care -- and they would direct their aid to governments, not to competing domestic actors.
For more than 30 years the aid community largely held to these implicit terms. But in the early 1990s aid providers moved beyond this formally apolitical framework. Frustrated with decades of poorly performing programs and unmet development objectives, donors embraced the idea that governance failures in aid-receiving countries were often at the core of disappointing socioeconomic results. Sustainable advances in education, agricultural productivity, economic growth, or other key priorities require more than technical knowledge and capital -- they need well-functioning government institutions. Focusing on governance meant focusing on politics, no matter how much aid providers initially tried to portray the concept as neutral and technical. It meant fighting corruption, confronting patronage networks, and many other politically sensitive tasks.
In the same years, the dramatic spread of democracy in the developing and post-communist worlds prompted many Western aid groups to adopt democracy as a goal. They embraced a new orthodoxy which held that democracy and socioeconomic progress go hand in hand. Donors created a whole new range of programs to support democratic transitions, from elections assistance and political party aid to civic education programs and legislative support. Western aid programs aimed at democracy and governance now total somewhere around $10 billion annually.
With these political goals came more political methods, including a sharp increase in foreign assistance to nongovernmental actors. This move initially reflected a desire to support an independent civil society as an essential element of democratization. Yet it spread further when development agencies -- including those, like the World Bank, that do not explicitly support democracy -- concluded that they could advance socioeconomic goals (such as improved public services) by empowering citizens to demand better governance.