Development Rights & Equitable Aid

Development Rights & Equitable Aid

Efforts to counterbalance neocolonialism have long been debated. Yet, colonial dynamics remain entrenched in the global aid system. Is human rights law the key to reform?

Decolonisation can be defined as the process through which colonised countries regain their political independence. But, dismantling the legacy left behind by colonial powers in the developing world is not a simple feat.

Former colonial powers continue to exert political influence over the developing world, including through development aid programmes. If one accepts that a significant portion of modern-day inequality can be attributed to European colonialism, then providing aid could be seen as ‘righting’ a historical wrong. In truth, however, it is a concerning example of a power dynamic that was created, and is now perpetuated, largely by those same benefactors of colonialism.

As this issue has played out, countries from the Global South have simultaneously advocated for the progressive recognition of a new human right: the ‘right to development’. First formally recognised by the United Nations in 1986, this right encompasses many factors. We argue that it may be used to help combat the ‘colonial hangover’ which continues to plague many development assistance programmes.

The problem with development aid

Most commonly, aid is provided through official development assistance and overseas development finance. Such financial assistance aims to improve conditions in countries requesting economic and financial support (i.e. mainly developing countries). Although the mainstream narrative is that developed countries provide assistance to eradicate poverty in Global South countries, thereby helping them transition out of underdevelopment, relevant data suggests that more money actually flows out of developing countries and into developed countries, than the contrary.

There is thus a pervasive fallacy in the classic aid discourse that ultimately perpetuates the dependency of developing countries on financial assistance. This is flagrant already in the programming stage. It is unsurprising (albeit concerning) that donor countries seem to have the last word on financial decisions. That notwithstanding, a prime example of the mainstream fallacy is Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), a common requirement imposed on recipient countries.

PRSPs were conceived by the World Bank as documents prepared by recipient governments, in cooperation with the Bank’s staff, to address local dimensions of poverty and create strategies for overcoming them. As such, PRSPs were envisaged as a tool for local ownership of aid programmes, with a preference for collective dialogue. In this vein, developed countries would provide aid on the basis of some guarantees from the recipient developing countries that the resources would be used efficiently – thus, the World Bank would act as a facilitator, helping provide aid to one country, and realistic assurances to the other. In practice, however, the World Bank largely controls the process, with its own consultants reportedly drafting the PSRPs. This undermines the recipient’s autonomy and, some may argue, the principle of non-intervention. As highlighted by Philipp Dann, countries that rely heavily on World Bank loans have no real choice in the process if they are to receive the funds they so desperately need.

Clearly, concerns that the current aid system reproduces old colonialist structures are legitimate. The resource flow-back and biased institutional structures maintain developed countries’ benefits at the cost of developing countries remaining dependant. The mainstream narrative thus treats donor countries as altruistic contributors when, in fact, they profit from the system most. Consequently, this situation relinquishes developing countries to the eternal position of recipients, requesting assistance to counter a problem both ‘created and solved’ outside their borders.

The right to development – a solution?

Nonetheless, the solution to this problem is not to simply cut aid, but rather to reform it. Effective reform would put local ownership and participation at the heart of development aid. This is where the ‘right to development’ (RTD) can help. According to Fantu Cheru, quoting Martin Khor, ‘developing countries must have the ability, freedom, and flexibility to make strategic choices in financial, trade, and investment policies’. Without these freedoms, Cheru insists that States ‘will never be in a position to promote and protect the right to development of [their] citizens’. Indeed, the RTD could fill a gap by ensuring recipient and donor countries negotiate on an equal footing.

Among the various obligations in the 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development is a focus on inclusive participation as both a means and an end, reflected, for example, in Article 2(1): ‘The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.’ This participatory element, coupled with the requirement that States (including donors) bear ‘the primary responsibility for the creation of national and international conditions favourable to the realization of the right to development’ in Article 3(1), supports the view that by perpetuating the current imbalance in development aid programmes, donor States may violate international law.

However, despite it being contained in various documents, including regional human rights charters in the Global South, the RTD is not yet recognised as binding under international law. Codification of the right as a binding norm is an ongoing debate, pushed by the Global South, and opposed largely by the Global North (with opposers citing the existence of other binding rights as sufficient to cover the scope of the RTD). Yet, the consultation obligations imposed by the RTD, and the manner in which these obligations interact with development aid, as described above, do not appear to be covered by any other human right, as claimed by those who oppose the RTD.

While acknowledging the non-binding character of the RTD at present, we submit that its soft law nature may nonetheless be invoked by developing countries as they attempt to further decolonise development aid. Therefore, the RTD could be used as a compelling argument that States must engage local communities and empower domestic authorities in the programming and implementation of development aid.


Development aid structures remain plagued by colonialist dynamics. These structures, while helping developing countries to some extent, do not empower such countries to climb the development ladder. Rather, they create a profitable business for developed countries, who are incentivised to enable the disease, so that they can sell the cure. This cycle contradicts ideas of inclusiveness and recipient-State empowerment championed by the RTD. Recognising the RTD as a binding norm would further require that donors refrain from interfering with others’ development and, rather, would require that they help realise this right, thereby correcting the legacy power imbalance embedded in development aid.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors alone, and should not necessarily be taken to reflect those of their employers.


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