Every person who at least once in their life has put some money in the Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy (the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity) collection box or bought a roll for a homeless person, knows that helping others brings benefits not only to the recipient but also to the giver. It makes us feel better people, we feel we have fulfilled our duty, and we believe that the good that we have sent out to other people will come back to us in one form or another. Assistance provided by countries works in exactly the same way.
The aim of official development assistance (ODA) is to eradicate poverty and inequalities as well as fostering sustainable economic growth of the poorest countries in the world. However, by providing assistance to others, the donors also help themselves.
During the Cold War, the USSR provided economic assistance to its ‘sister’ countries of the communist bloc, just like the US supported countries that resisted the communist offensive. The European Union offers assistance to expand the scope of the world as we know it – democratic, open, and peaceful. This enables us not only to inspire the liberalization of economies, strengthening democracy and the rules of law, but also to ensure stability and minimize the risk of mass migration. Within the framework of the New Silk Road initiative, China has offered huge loans for infrastructure investments in Asia and Africa – not only to use its national overproduction, but also to increase its political influence in other regions of the world. Moreover, developing countries do not want to receive assistance that is understood as handouts or charitable activities undertaken by rich societies, but as an investment in a common future.
The motivations behind the need to help others were aptly explained by Marcela Escobari, a long-standing expert of ‘US Aid’ (The United States Agency for International Development) when she responded to President Donald Trump’s attempts to cut the foreign aid budget by 37 percent in 2017 President Trump argued at the time that he couldn’t explain to an average family from Grand Rapids, Michigan, why their taxes should go to help people in faraway countries. Marcela Escobari presented a long list of benefits for the US (including helping to stabilise the situation in neighbouring countries, curbing crime, creating markets for US export) and summed up her points: To the family in Grand Rapids: Know that foreign aid is helping you stay safe, and tackling messy challenges at their roots. […] Even if you don’t believe spending U.S. taxpayer dollars to assist Central America is our obligation, it is undoubtedly in our best interest.
In 2018 Poland spent over PLN 2.75 billion on official development assistance, which is slightly more than, say, the budget of Bialystok. Is it a lot or too little? Many people, like the family from Grand Rapids, will have doubts whether the money couldn’t be spent in a better way, especially that even in Poland many things should be improved and are underfunded. Those who believe that Poland spends too much on assistance should be reminded that most of the money (69 percent and PLN 1.88 billion in 2018) goes to multilateral assistance, and most of all it is part of obligatory payments for EU member states. That is why the EU is the world’s leading donor of development assistance. By making contributions to the EU’s common budget, Poland has influence on how the funds are spent. On the other hand, bilateral assistance, that is money allocated by the Polish government, amounted to PLN 876 million in 2018.
Those who believe that Poland’s assistance is insufficient also have a few arguments to present. ODA spending comprises only 0.14 percent of Polish GDP, which, when compared to the size of the economy, is one of the worst results among all EU members. It also stands significantly below the 0.33 GDP indicator to which we have committed ourselves as a member of the EU. It is not much for a country that after all – though we easily forget about it – belongs to the richest and most developed countries in the world. In 2018, Poland was the 23rd world’s largest economy in the world and ranked 33 in terms of Human Development Index (a multifaceted marker measuring the level of socio-economic development). This means that in the remaining 156 countries in the world life conditions are worse, often much worse, than those in Poland. According to a campaign carried out by the UN in 2005, for most of the world population Poland is truly ‘a paradise’. In the past, when the journey from Europe to America took many weeks, and news travelled as slowly as people did, poverty, conflicts or disasters in distant corners of the world were not necessarily of much interest to us. Today, in the era of the Internet, 24-hour news television channels, air travel and mass migration, these threats know no boundaries. Political instability and poverty are the sources of not only migration, but also humanitarian crises, terrorism, drug and arms trafficking. We are also affected by these challenges, no matter how far away from Europe’s borders they take place. That is why the EU is planning to increase ODA spending in its new budget after 2020 by 23 billion euro, and the US finally adopted an act on allocating an additional 60 billion dollars to build infrastructure in poor countries. In today’s globalized and interdependent world, assistance is perceived as an investment. What exactly are the benefits that this investment brings to Poland? It is probably also thanks to the PLN 172 million that Poland spent in 2017 on humanitarian aid that fewer refugees from the Middle East are now trying to reach Europe. Poland uses the money to support development programmes of the EU and UN agencies for Syrians in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon, as well as activities of Polish humanitarian organizations. Polish Center for International Aid alone, thanks to government grants in 2017 provided shelter for over 15 thousand refugees in Lebanon and offered medical assistance for another 10 thousand people in refugee camps. Poland sets aside nearly PLN 300 million on scholarship programmes for foreigners, which enables thousands of young people from dozens of countries to study at our universities. This way a significant group of future ‘ambassadors of Poland’ has been formed. These people know our country and have created a network of contacts which will prove useful in economic or political cooperation.
In the Eastern Partnership countries Poland also supports civil society and creates elites that ensure friendly relations with Poland. It also promotes the development of private entrepreneurship there, thus investing in a stable neighbourhood and creating future outlets. Thanks to assistance funds, Polish companies deliver, among other products, lifesaving and firefighting equipment to such faraway counties as Myanmar (Burma). Development assistance has become an increasingly important tool of foreign policy which Poland can wield to advance its interests abroad. If Poland does it efficiently and effectively, it will make our international environment more stable and secure.
Naturally, offering assistance to others should not be perceived solely in terms of our own interest and benefits. Ultimately, the most important aim and beneficiary must be another human being who has the right to live in his or her home country in prosperity, dignity and security. That is why various countries have so many reasons to provide assistance: moral (one should help the weaker), historical (paying off debts to former colonies), political (supporting democracy, strengthening alliances) or economic (for example, opening new markets).
According to the 2015 public opinion survey on this issue, the vast majority of Poles (65 percent) supported Poland’s assistance to less developed countries. Most respondents believed that it should result from the willingness to repay for the assistance Poland had received in the past (46 percent) or the moral obligation to help others (44 percent). Apart from these noble motives it is, however, important to appreciate the fact that helping others also serves our own interest.
As the above-mentioned American expert explained: ‘Foreign aid is necessary, and done well, it is comparatively cost-effective. War is expensive. Combating terrorism from failed states is expensive. Foreign aid is the cheapest insurance policy we can buy as a country.’ So, if a family from Sanok, Zabrze or Kartuzy would like to ask why Poland spends money on assistance in Ukraine or Senegal, the answer is the same: It is profitable to us.
Author: Patryk Kugiel, main analyst, the Polish Institute of International Affairs