Donor Competition and Public Support for Foreign Aid Sanctions

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(1) 212 –227
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919897837
Foreign aid is used to pursue a broad array of foreign
policy goals. On one hand, donors seek to use foreign aid
in an altruistic fashion, promoting economic develop-
ment and poverty alleviation (Heinrich 2013; Lumsdaine
1993). On the other hand, foreign aid is an essential tool
for promoting security and economic interests and for
exporting ideology (Bermeo 2017; Meernik, Krueger
and Poe 1998; Mesquita and Smith 2007; Schraeder,
Hook and Taylor 1998). In the past 20 years, OECD
donors have also begun to use the promise of aid or, per-
haps more commonly, the threat of its withdrawal, to
promote political ends such as improved democracy,
more respect for human rights, and better governance
(Claessens, Cassimon, and Van Campenhout 2009;
Crawford 2001; Molenaers et al. 2015; Swedlund 2017;
Winters and Martinez 2015). Using a single tool to pur-
sue multiple foreign policy goals, however, can generate
challenging tensions when making decisions regarding
its use (Morgenthau 1962).
The tensions inherent in the use of foreign aid as a
policy tool have waxed and waned with changes in the
international environment. These tensions have been
heightened recently by the rise of so-called nontraditional
donors, such as China, Russia,1 India, and Brazil (whereas
traditional donors are here defined as the high-income,
OECD countries). Foreign aid from these newcomers, it
is argued, may be undermining traditional donors’
attempts to promote democracy, human rights, and good
governance in less developed countries (Naim 2007;
Woods 2008).2 Implicit in this argument is the notion of
“donor competition”—the understanding that these new-
comers have different motives for providing development
assistance from traditional donors and are thereby chal-
lenging the latter’s ability to use foreign aid to influence
policy within aid recipients.
In this paper, we examine the extent to which citizens
in traditional aid-giving countries take into account the
international environment when assessing foreign aid
policy. Previous work shows that public opinion is an
important source of decisions surrounding aid policy, as it
is for policies in other international arenas including
trade, immigration, conflict, and cooperation.3 There is
thus a growing body of empirical research that sheds light
on public attitudes toward aid policy in donor countries.
This literature suggests that a combination of ideology,
897837PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919897837Political Research QuarterlyKohno et al.
1Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan
2University of California, Davis, CA, USA
3University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, USA
Corresponding Author:
Gabriella R. Montinola, Department of Political Science, University of
California, Davis, 1 Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Donor Competition and Public
Support for Foreign Aid Sanctions
Masaru Kohno1, Gabriella R. Montinola2,
Matthew S. Winters3, and Gento Kato1,2
Previous research suggests that ideology, material interests, and moral values drive citizens’ preferences over foreign
aid policy. Little attention has been paid to how perceptions of the international environment affect these preferences.
We examine the extent to which citizens in a traditional donor country consider donor competition when deciding
whether to impose aid sanctions on governments engaged in human rights violations. Employing an information
experiment conducted among Japanese adults, we find that the prospect of another donor ready to act as a substitute
aid-provider reduces support for the use of aid sanctions. This effect runs most strongly through a pathway privileging
security concerns, and the effect is larger among respondents who have preexisting concerns about the other donor.
These results highlight the way in which public desires for foreign aid to bring about material returns can hinder a
government’s ability to use aid to promote good governance ends.
foreign aid, economic sanctions, Japanese public opinion, experiments, mediation analysis
Kohno et al. 213
personal and sociotropic material interests, and moral
values drives citizens’ baseline preferences regarding
overall levels of foreign aid (Heinrich, Kobayashi and
Bryant 2016; Henson and Lindstrom 2013; Milner and
Tingley 2013; Paxton and Knack 2012; Scotto et al.
2017). Little attention has been paid, however, to how
perceptions of the international environment, particularly
the possibility of donor competition, affect citizens’ pref-
erences regarding aid policy and the weight citizens place
on moral, material, and other considerations when assess-
ing foreign aid policy.
We examine the growing significance of donor com-
petition in the context of citizens’ preferences for or
against sanctioning a government engaged in interna-
tionally recognized human rights violations. We argue
that citizens’ support for using aid sanctions as a foreign
policy tool will fall when they are made explicitly aware
of the possibility that another donor is ready to act as a
substitute aid-provider. Even if the public might other-
wise place great value in exercising aid policy to pursue
moral ends such as the improvement of human rights
conditions in a recipient country,4 awareness that a rival
donor is waiting in the wings and willing to take over as
aid-provider is likely to affect the public’s final assess-
ment of whether or not to execute sanctions against the
repressive government.
We evaluate this argument with an information experi-
ment conducted among adult respondents in Japan.5
Specifically, we examine whether drawing attention to
the possibility of donor competition with China influ-
ences support for or against canceling aid programs in
Myanmar and the Philippines—two states whose recent
human rights abuses have been widely publicized.
Conducting our experiment in Japan, an indisputably
important donor country, and designing the experiment
around information on possible competition with its main
rival donor (China) in the context of real-world Japanese
aid recipients engaged in prominent human rights viola-
tions (Myanmar and the Philippines) generates a strong
dose of naturalism, which increases the ecological valid-
ity of our findings (Findley et al. 2017; Mutz 2011).
In addition to assessing whether information regard-
ing donor competition influences support for suspend-
ing aid to countries engaged in human rights abuses, we
also consider how this information affects individuals’
aid policy preferences. Building on previous work
which identifies different motives for supporting aid
sanctions (Allendoerfer 2017; Heinrich, Kobayashi and
Long 2018; Heinrich, Kobayashi, and Peterson 2017),
we posit four mechanisms, namely that information
regarding donor competition cues security, economic,
reputational, and aid efficacy concerns.6 We employ
causal mediation analysis to identify which, if any, of
the four mechanisms underpin changes in aid policy
preferences in Japan in response to information about
donor competition.
Our results show that the threat of donor competition
does indeed matter in the predicted direction, as respon-
dents informed of potential donor competition are less
likely to support suspending aid to countries engaged in
human rights abuses. Moreover, we find the strongest
evidence for a security concerns mechanism. The central-
ity of security concerns in citizens’ thinking about aid
sanctions is additionally supported by evidence that those
respondents who feel threatened by the potential com-
petitor in our empirical application—China—react most
strongly to the information about donor competition.
The argument and findings we present in this paper
speak directly to the motivations underpinning donor pub-
lics’ preferences regarding foreign aid policy. While our
results rely on a public opinion survey in Japan, we submit
our findings may provide lessons for a wide range of donor
countries. Japan relies heavily on economic relations as a
tool to influence other states, primarily because it is pro-
hibited by its constitution from using military force to set-
tle international disputes (Komiya, Miyagawa, and Tago
2018). In this sense, unlike the United States, Japan belongs
to a family of more ordinary donor countries whose citi-
zens may have cause to be concerned if their country’s
influence is diluted by competing donors.7 Our work may
thus provide a useful contrast to studies that center on great
powers like the United States, and to some extent the
United Kingdom, whose citizens may have less cause for
concern when confronted with the possibility of other
donors serving as substitute sources of aid.
More broadly, our work contributes to the literature
on whether and under what conditions foreign aid can
promote better governance in less developed countries
by suggesting that aid policy makers may be constrained
by public opinion in their ability to use the threat of aid
withdrawal to bring about changes in target states’
behavior.8 Some may still question whether the public’s
preferences in donor countries affect aid policy at all,
but the case for suspending aid in the face of human
rights violations is more likely than not to originate
from civil society pressure (i.e., to be a case where mass
public opinion drives government decision making);
macro-level studies show, for instance, that the impact
of human rights violations on aid allocation depends on
media exposure and shaming by international human
rights organizations (Dietrich and Murdie 2017; Murdie
and Peksen 2013; Nielsen 2013; Peksen, Peterson and
Drury 2014).9 Understanding why the public may be
more or less likely to support conditioning aid on pro-
tection of human rights in recipient countries will thus
help policymakers make better arguments regarding the
desirability of political conditionality and/or design pol-
icies more in line with public preferences.

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