In 2010, Norway provided more than EUR 3,65 billion in foreign aid. According to the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), Norway has never before given away so much money in support.
Brazil, Tanzania and Afghanistan are the three countries that received the most money. But it is the African region as a whole that receives the most aid, with countries such as Sudan at the top of the recipient list.
Indra de Soysa, a professor in the Globalization Programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has studied the impact that aid has on peace and human rights in the receiving countries.
His research shows no effect whatsoever on bringing about peace in recipient countries. But he is convinced that Norwegian aid money in Africa is used to buy weapons.
According to NORAD, Norwegian foreign aid is offered in areas where Norway is considered to have special skills - such as in peace building and human rights. One of the major items for Norwegian’s billions in foreign aid is "good governance and civil society" in the recipient country.
“Is it possible to buy peace and human rights with aid money? If that is the case, foreign aid has an important role to play in economic development, and the critics are wrong," says de Soysa. "Many, including the former Bush regime, advocated foreign aid as a way to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize weak countries.”
“Scandinavian aid is distinctive because it is generous, and because Scandinavian countries have an international role to play as moral guides through their generosity. I wanted to find out whether Scandinavian aid had more of an impact than aid from other countries,” says the researcher.
He has used data from the World Bank, which shows foreign aid transactions of government assistance to the government in the period 1996-2009. The results from Norwegian assistance were discouraging.
“Despite the fact that Norway provides the most foreign aid, Norwegian assistance has absolutely no effect on creating peace and improving human rights,” says de Soysa, who is convinced that Norwegian aid in Africa is used to buy guns and grenades.
When a bad regime is given aid money to build hospitals and schools, the same regime can use money from other areas of the budget to buy weapons. Aid researcher Paul Collier suggests that at least 40 per cent of African military spending is financed by aid money.
"Norwegian development assistance is not an exception to this reality,” argues de Soysa.
“Many researchers look at aid as ‘the road to hell’, because the money helps dictators maintain power, and because the aid does not lead to the desired economic development,” he says.
England and Japan were the best countries in de Soysa’s survey. Of the Scandinavian countries, only Danish assistance led to improved human rights, while the US was consistent in helping countries that violated human rights. This was one of the more robust findings.
Norwegian assistance was also higher for countries that export oil. This raises the question of whether or not Norwegian development assistance is motivated by strategic concerns rather than to fight poverty.
“Most countries that export oil should be able to finance their own aid to their poor,” says de Soysa.
He believes that the Norwegian government must focus its assistance money toward more effective poverty reduction.
“Poor people in poor countries are poor lobbyists in Oslo, and oil companies can easily win in any competition with them. Unfortunately it is very difficult for ordinary people to monitor which countries get what and why. Thus, governments can easily use foreign aid strategically to achieve political goals,” says the researcher.
“But if our tax money is going to dictators who violate human rights, we are all guilty of the atrocities being done to the population,” he adds.
De Soysa says that aid budgets should be linked to projects that can be documented, as in the number of new schools, and how many more people have received food.
If the outcome of development aid is extremely variable, is giving aid money just a way to ease a guilty conscience?
“Yes, many point out that aid can be seen as a way for Western countries to pay a penalty for taking advantage of the world's poor in other areas, such as export agreements and international laws that only make rich countries even richer,” says de Soysa.
His research paper on the issue, "Do Scandinavians do it better?" is scheduled to be published in International Studies Quarterly.