A Postcolonial Look On ‘New’ Donors

by Tomáš Profant

International relations are power relations. This banal argument is clearly visible in the current configuration of the North-South relation. One of the most apparent ways power operates is through the bond of gift. The powerful nations give and the not so powerful receive the so called development assistance. Both are represented as partners in development cooperation.

Whereas the power difference between the donor and the recipient is clear, there is another form of hierarchy that is structured by development cooperation. Donors are not equal either. There are now numerous studies on non-DAC donors such as China, India or Brazil. The inequality between donors is, however, well visible also in the case of the so-called new donors based in East Central Europe. These include Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and several others.

How come that they accept the label ‘new’ if they were donors long before the fall of communism in 1989? Nowadays, this label is fading as it is being replaced with numbers such as the ‘EU-13’, but the trace of this demi-orientalist discourse is still present. The representation through a number contains the trace of the Orientalist difference. The relevant question here is: why put these donors together into a specific group? Why not create different groupings?

There are very clear similarities among ‘old’ and ‘new’ donors and there are various ways of categorizing donors. My research shows that Slovakia (as a representative of ‘new’ donors) is very similar to Austria that is considered to belong among the old donors. Both of them in their discourses hierarchize the Self above the Other, yet at the same time they both engage in the deliberately positive representation of the Other. Both of them depoliticize unequal power relations and to a smaller extent both engage in attempts to politicize these relations. Finally, both of them legitimize ‘development’ in their discourses, but at the same time less often engage in its deligitimization.

The development apparatuses in these two countries engage in similar forms of hirarchization, depoliticization and legitimization of development within three important strands of the development discourse: sustainable development, education and microfinance. Simply put, the respondents as well as the analyzed texts from both countries profess similar discourses. The difference between them is one of a degree and not of substance. Whereas the texts are with few exceptions very much the same, the Austrian respondents are occasionally more critical towards hierarchization, more political and critical of unequal power relations and more critical towards development in its usual understanding.

Further similarities between Austria and Slovakia include similar origins with both countries having development aid (re)induced from the outside after a lost war (Second World War and the Cold War), having a weak commitment to aid, having a similar regional focus (European neighborhood countries), having similar motivations and similar non-governmental spheres.

It thus might be problematic to distinguish between donors on the basis of age, given not only their discursive similarity, but also their similar past and more material present. At the same time, there are other ways to group donors. One could distinguish between groups of donors on the basis of their regional focus. Some focus on the Balkans of the Eastern Partnership, others focus on African countries. This would be in accordance with the norm of complementarity and coordination of donors and in this case, Austria and Slovakia would belong into one group.

A similar way to distinguish between donors was suggested by Carbone who distinguishes between regionalists who emphasize strategic links between Europe and its former colonies (France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal) and globalists who place greater emphasis on levels of poverty (Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries). Another division is based on the promotion of the idea that development cooperation should be carried out to a greater extent through the EU and on the promotion of the opposite idea that development cooperation should remain within the national member states of the EU. Yet another way to distinguish between donors is between trend-setters and followers and one can group donors on the basis of their performance that one could get from the Commitment to Development Index.

The political aim of my research is to highlight the various ways one can categorize donors and thereby to problematize the existing distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ donors. If the donors are so similar, why are they not in the same category? The old-new distinction does not seem to be ‘a logical’ result of applying a somehow meaningful category such as the regional focus, size or the quality of aid. It is wrongly based on age. More importantly, this distinction to a great extent follows the orientalist distinction between East and West. ‘Old’ donors are from the West, ‘new’ donors are from the East. The traditional power difference between the Orient and the Occident is supported here by the difference in age that as Oprea argued translates into a knowledge hierarchy leading the the well know power/knowledge nexus. The elderly know, the youngsters are supposed to learn from them.

The Orientalism so well known from the postcolonial analysis of development discourse is present also in the world order of donors. If the identity of your country is supposed to be that of a developed country – a country in the clubs of the rich of the EU or the OECD, then you need to become a donor. But there still remains a difference between East and West born in the 18th century. The distinction of donors into ‘old’ and ‘new’ seems to be an heir to this particular orientalist differentiation.

Tomáš Profant is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of International Relations (IIR) in Prague. His most recent publication is New Donors on the Postcolonial Crossroads. Eastern Europe and Western Aid. 

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