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Promoting Sustainably-Driven Foreign Aid

By Annabel Cowan

A struggle that many developing countries are facing today is how to balance economic growth with sustainable development. As we have seen from the Industrial Revolution, when a country sees rapid economic growth, it is often at the environment’s expense. A greater emphasis on foreign environmental aid has been a topic of discussion at various global summits since the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Earth Summit 1992 (Hicks 2008). Rio was one of the first significant world leaders’ meetings to discuss environmental and development issues and their potential solutions. However, for most governments of developed countries and multilateral donor organizations, there is still not a great enough focus on properly applied sustainably-driven foreign aid.

In 2015, the UN released its seventeen 'Sustainable Development Goals.’ These far-reaching goals range from social issues such as ending poverty, reducing inequalities, and offering quality education, to climate issues like affordable clean energy, climate action, and increased biodiversity worldwide. These goals are meant to be a call for action to both developed and developing countries. While, in theory, they are commendable, their implementation can be difficult in practice. These goals are often more aligned with those of developed/aid donor countries and less so aid recipient countries’ realities. As a result, we see ill-advised and improperly implemented foreign aid from donors. A non-environmental example of one such situation is when organizations come into underdeveloped countries to build a school but do not follow up to ensure that the school has teachers, supplies, students etc. Therefore many of these schools end up empty or improperly managed.

For many developing countries, their primary focus is on economic growth to improve citizens’ quality of life to the high standards in Western developed countries. Poorer countries, understandably, prioritize their domestic social issues like poverty, quality of education, and health care, rather than the broader global issues highlighted by the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals.’ While foreign aid does have the potential to reduce pollution and environmental degradation in recipient countries, the successful implementation of environmental aid is heavily dependent on the recipient country’s goals and policies as well as the involvement of the donor organization (Sahoo 2014). Often, recipient countries do not have the infrastructure to appropriately use environmentally targeted aid, even if they want to (Hicks 2008). Simply providing environmental, financial assistance without any support from donors in its proper implementation will result in less efficient and less effective use of these resources.

Unfortunately, one of the largest threats for many developing countries is the effects of climate change. Frequently, the combination of their geography and a lack of environmental protection infrastructure makes them uniquely vulnerable to these effects, including warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and loss of biodiversity. Not only does climate change affect the environment itself, but there are also detrimental effects on human health and quality of life. Around the world, millions of people a year are dying prematurely from air pollution, unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, lead exposure, and exposure to toxic pesticides (Hicks 2008).

Since the Rio Summit in 1992, there has been a slow transition to a greater emphasis on encouraging sustainable growth in the developing world over the last nearly three decades. However, there is still very little literature on or assessment methods for determining how foreign aid influences developing countries’ environment. This lack of literature makes it difficult for donors to make informed decisions where their funds will be used to the fullest extent and what factors of a recipient country are essential to consider when making those choices. There are also no systems that encourage and support donor organizations that focus their resources on sustainable projects. Without this type of incentivization, the pace at which this transition promotes sustainable growth for developing countries will remain slow.

When making decisions regarding foreign aid, governments, NGOs, and other multilateral organizations must consider the environmental effects of that aid. It is the responsibility of donor countries and organizations with abundant resources at their disposal to encourage sustainable growth in developing countries. A focus on sustainable development and environmentally positive projects will prevent massive financial losses and save more human lives in developing countries in the long-term.


Works Cited:

Hicks, Robert L., Bradley C. Parks, J. Timmons Roberts, and Michael J. Tierney. “Greening Aid?,” 2008.

Sahoo, Kalpana, and Narayan Sethi. “Foreign Aid and Its Environmental Implication in India.” The Romanian Economic Journal. The Romanian Economic Journal, September 2014.

“Home | Sustainable Development.” Accessed December 15, 2020.


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