Professionalisation and Deradicalisation of Development Education

Spring 2011

History and the development aid debate in the Republic of Ireland

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Kevin O'Sullivan



In September 2006, more than thirty-two years after its publication was first discussed, the Irish government issued its White Paper on Irish Aid.  Designed to encourage a greater public understanding of the official aid programme, the document contained more than a passing reference to the role of the past in shaping Irish Aid’s present.  In the preface, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern and Minister of State in charge of Development Co-operation and Human Rights Conor Lenihan drew on the strength of precedence and Ireland’s traditions in the field of development aid: ‘It is important to realise that we are not starting with a blank slate.  Irish Aid, which has been in operation since 1974, has been very favourably reviewed by independent institutions and other international donors’ (DFA, 2006a:5).

Experience, they implied, was vital – not least in building brand longevity.  But also implicit in their comments was a conviction that the lessons of the past were important in informing decision-making in the present.  The message of the conclusion was simple: history matters.  Yet the question remains: just how does a better understanding of the past make for better judgements in the present?  This article, drawing on the author’s research into the history of Irish foreign aid since the late 1960s, explores the discipline’s use in understanding the development sector today.  It is divided into four parts.  The article begins with an outline of the rapid expansion in the study of aid history over the past decade, before briefly analysing how history contributes to contemporary policy-making and society.  The final two sections document the practical uses of historical insight: in explaining the influence of the European Economic Community/ European Union (EEC/EU) on aid in Ireland and the EU’s newest member states, and in helping to shed light on the impact of economic recession on donor behaviour.  The article concludes by outlining some of the lessons history offers to today’s decision-makers.


Writing aid history


For a country well versed in the official adaptation of the past to suit present agendas, Ahern and Lenihan’s remarks in the White Paper on Irish Aid were hardly a radical departure.  In his foreword to the document, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern linked Ireland’s past directly with its contemporary attitudes to aid: ‘Because of our history, Ireland can rightly claim to empathise with those who are suffering from disease, poverty and hunger every day around the globe’ (DFA, 2006a:3).  But the Taoiseach was simply the latest in a long line to make this assertion.  From the aid sector’s emergence in Ireland in the mid-1960s, official policy-makers and NGOs drew heavily on what they saw as the twin pillars of their country’s relationship with the global South: a ‘shared legacy with developing countries [that] has helped to create a strong bond of understanding and empathy’ (DFA, 2002:15); and the argument that Irish attitudes to aid – as Trócaire director Justin Kilcullen put it – were ‘very clearly built on the missionary tradition’ (Kilcullen, 2010:17).

In spite of these consistent references to the past, however, the study of aid history in Ireland has received limited attention.  Articles by O’Neill (1999; 2002) and this author (O’Sullivan, 2007) have traced the evolution of official aid.  Books by Farmar (on Concern; 2002) and Maye (on Trócaire; 2010) have broadened our understanding of Ireland’s vibrant non-governmental development sector.  But the study of Ireland’s relationship with the developing world has largely been the preserve of other disciplines, led by the journal Trócaire Development Review and books by Kirby (1992) and Holmes, Rees and Whelan (1993).

This limited treatment of Ireland’s aid history is not unremarkable.  When economic historian Richard T. Griffiths reflected on almost a decade of international research into the history of foreign aid in 2008, he accompanied it with a call for the rapid – and necessary – expansion of the sub-discipline (2008).  His comments came at a time of transition for academic histories of foreign aid.  At the turn of the twenty-first century, it had been left to social scientists like David Lumsdaine (1993), Terje Tvedt (1998) and Alex de Waal (1997) to provide the narrative and theoretical frameworks for mapping the evolution of the development sector.  The study of aid history flourished only from the early 2000s, prompted by the groundbreaking contributions to a special edition of the journal Contemporary European History dedicated to the subject (Schmidt & Pharo, 2003) and extended in research projects in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and the Nordic states.

Carol Lancaster’s wide-ranging monograph Foreign Aid: Diplomacy, Development, Domestic Politics (2007) led the way: a brilliant introduction to aid-giving across five countries – Denmark, France, Germany, Japan and the United States.  At the heart of Lancaster’s monograph lay a simple but important lesson: since aid is an inherently global undertaking, its history must be understood in a similar context.  Others were quick to follow.  A two-volume study detailing the national dynamics of aid-giving in the Cold War appeared in 2008 (Pharo & Fraser), and is to be followed this year (2011) by a volume documenting the rise of foreign aid as a norm in international relations (Olesen & Pharo, 2011).

The prominent role taken by non-state actors in an increasingly globalised aid environment since the late 1960s sparked further research into the rise of the NGO sector.  Scholars like Matthew Connelly (2008), Gilbert Rist (2008) and James Vernon (2007) traced the evolving norms of development and human rights in the twentieth century. Historians in Australia (Rugendyke & Ollif, 2007), Britain (Saunders, 2009; Crowson & Hilton’s NGOs in Britain project at the University of Birmingham), and the Netherlands (Smits, 2008) joined them in recent years, charting the fortunes of NGOs at national level and adding to a small body of research on individual organisations like Médecins sans Frontières (Vallaeys, 2004) and Oxfam (Black, 1992).


History, society and policy-making


At the end of his 2008 article, Griffiths was clear about the potential for this body of work to contribute strongly to contemporary debate.  By analysing the expansion of the international aid regime since the 1970s, he argued in respect to the effectiveness of Western aid policies, and the successes (or not) of their endeavours in the global South that historians will have ‘major contributions to make to the academic discourse and the public debate on development assistance’ (Griffiths, 2008:48-49).  Yet Griffiths was less expansive in describing just how that would happen.  Now that we have begun to write these histories and make them available to a wider audience, what are they to do with them?  What use is history to the aid practitioner or policy-maker?

A number of patterns present themselves easily from the histories of official aid completed to date.  Comparing the evolution of the aid sector in Ireland and Finland, for example, with post-imperial donors like Britain and France, and even with non-aligned states in Scandinavia, it is abundantly clear that memories of foreign rule and late industrial development elicit a particular response to the needs of the developing world.  Social and political structures are also important, since, as Noël and Thérien’s study from the mid-1990s showed, ‘[w]elfare principles institutionalised at the domestic level shape the participation of developed countries in the international aid regime’ (1995:552).  Money matters: Ireland has always – apart from a brief spurt in the early 2000s – lagged behind more affluent, if politically like-minded, states like Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden in the level of its official development assistance (ODA).  Foreign policy concerns are also a determining factor, whether as part of an attempt to extend American or Soviet influence in the Cold War; as part of Chinese and Indian soft power in the post-September 11 period; or as part of Irish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian or Swedish attempts to link aid to international justice and co-operation through the United Nations (UN).

How to make the leap from these broad conclusions to the practical world of foreign aid is another issue.  How we apply the lessons of history in contemporary practice is a subject of continued conjecture among academic historians.  The problem, as John Tosh asserted in 2008, is that ‘professional historians are strangely reluctant to adopt the role of expert.  If they reach out to the public, it is usually to popularise academic history of a conventional kind; and most historians prefer to address only their academic peers’ (Tosh, 2008a:4).

Their reluctance may, on one level, have something to do with the historian’s role ‘to point out that things weren’t quite as simple as is usually claimed’, since it may all-too-readily feel like ‘tiresome nitpicking’ (Reisz, 2009).  Yet the discipline’s importance remains indisputable.  For analysts of the contemporary foreign aid sector, history’s emphasis on causality and long-term processes of change is important in highlighting patterns of aid-giving and aid-effectiveness.  For example, individual lessons can be extracted – what works, what doesn’t, and what has yet to be tried – and applied to a variety of present-day circumstances.

At the same time, however, history’s contributions are often difficult to contextualise. Historian Ruth Harris commented in 2009 on the difficulty of untangling the message from the medium: ‘Occasionally, a history of banking or recent foreign policy might provide easy, transparent lessons.  But the “big” lessons are harder to extract’ (Reisz, 2009).  It is not, however, impossible to do so.  The discipline’s contribution goes far beyond a collection of precedents: it helps to shape the culture in which policies are made.  At its most basic level, history contributes to the development of institutional memory, with a positive knock-on effect for contemporary decision-making.  It is arguable, for example, that the criticisms of the administration of Ireland’s aid programme in the late 1980s – the rapid turnover of staff within a small division in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the considerable difficulties caused by the almost total absence of ‘corporate memory’ that resulted (ACDC, 1988:8) – may have been alleviated, if not negated, by a better understanding of the programme’s past.

History also provides us with the tools to analyse and appreciate how we arrived at our present state.  Understanding the past, as John Tosh put it, ‘can open the door to a broader sense of the possibilities of the present’ (2008b).  At the heart of this assertion is the emphasis placed on context.  Context does away with an over-emphasis on precedent, allowing us to appreciate that familiar-looking opportunities or problems require a response shaped to suit the situation.  It teaches us that the constant process of change means that every event, as Tosh and Lang have argued, ‘is as a result of a unique combination of circumstances, and the strategies we adopt must have regard primarily to those circumstances’ (2006:39).  Importantly, however, this emphasis on context does not preclude the historian from pointing out possible sequences of events based on our knowledge of the circumstances that have brought us to our present position.  Instead, it is the combination of context with history’s discussion of process that makes the discipline so valuable to our understanding of the contemporary world.


Leading by example


The remainder of this article explores the uses of history in explaining the contemporary aid environment.  It focuses on one important case study: the lessons from the evolution of the Irish aid sector since the mid-1970s and their applicability to the new member states (NMS) that have joined the EU since 2004.

Cite article as: O'Sullivan, K (2011) 'History and the development aid debate in the Republic of Ireland', Policy & Practice: A Development Education Review, Vol. 12, Spring, pp. 110-123.