The international aid system has a dirty secret. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, the nations and organizations that donate and distribute aid do not care much about democracy and they still actively support dictators. The conventional narrative is that donors supported dictators only during the cold war and ever since have promoted democracy. This is wrong.
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In any case, dictators have received a remarkably constant share—around a third—of international aid expenditures since 1972. The proportion of aid received by democracies has remained stuck at about one fifth (the rest are in a purgatory called “Partly Free” by Freedom House). As for US foreign aid, despite all the brave pronouncements such as the ones I’ve quoted, more than half the aid budget still went to dictators during the most recent five years for which figures are available (2004–2008).
And there are still modern-day counterparts to Mobutu and Bokassa. Paul Biya, the dictator of Cameroon, is marking his twenty-eighth year in power in 2010 by receiving the latest in a never-ending series of loans from the International Monetary Fund with imaginative labels like “Poverty Reduction Growth Facilities.” Biya, whose government also enjoys ample oil revenues, has received a total of $35 billion in foreign aid during his reign. There’s been neither poverty reduction nor growth in his country: the average Cameroonian is poorer today than when Biya took power in 1982.
In February 2008, Biya’s security forces killed one hundred people during a demonstration against food price increases and also against a constitutional amendment that will extend his rule to 2018. Many of the victims were “apparently shot in the head at point-blank range.” The IMF justification for the newest loan in June 2009 noted laconically that these “social tensions” have not recurred and “the political situation is stable.”