Backing Despots? Foreign Aid and the Survival of Autocratic Regimes


What is the effect of foreign aid on the survival of autocratic regimes? Extant work about the effect of foreign aid on the recipient’s political regime has come to contradictory conclusions. Current findings display the full spectrum of possibilities from a democratizing effect to the enhancement of authoritarian survival. While some studies suggest that foreign aid strengthen autocrats and their incentives to cling to power, others have focused on specific periods and donors, thus finding a democratizing effect of foreign aid. In this article, we argue that the effect of foreign aid on autocratic survival does not operate in a direct way, but it is conditional on the levels of political leverage exerted by democratic donors vis-à-vis the autocratic leaders. This leverage, we find, is defined by the capability of democratic donors to back conditionality with effective political pressure. More specifically, we find that given similar levels of aid, autocratic recipients that are highly dependent on the United States—a quintessential democratic donor with extensive political influence—have a shorter survival rate when compared to those with which the United States has weaker ties and thus lower leverage.

In Democracy and Security 16(1)
Camilo Nieto-Matiz
Camilo Nieto-Matiz
Assistant Professor of Political Science