The flag and the stick: Aid suspensions, human rights, and the problem of the complicit public

Niheer Dasandi, Lior Erez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Foreign aid donors often use, or are expected to use, the threat of aid suspensions in response to human rights violations. The use of such conditionality seeks to pressure the ‘recipient’ government into ending or preventing rights abuses. This article argues that this approach tacitly relies on the assumption that most citizens in the recipient country oppose their government's rights violations. However, in recent years, and particularly linked to the rise of populism, there has been growing recognition of instances around the world in which significant parts of the public support government actions giving rise to human rights violations. Drawing in particular on the example of donor responses to recent efforts to introduce repressive anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda, the article argues that such cases present donors with a dilemma that arises because the threat of aid suspensions serves two distinct but related purposes: an instrumental function (‘the stick’), whereby the threat of withdrawing aid is used to pressure the ‘recipient’ government into ending the rights violation; and an expressive function (‘the flag’) that is often overlooked, whereby conditionality signals the donor government's commitment to international human rights norms. While typically these two functions of aid conditionality reinforce one another, we show that when faced with a ‘complicit public’, the stick and flag come apart, generating the dilemma for donors. The threat of aid sanctions is likely to trigger a public backlash but refraining from effective criticism will undermine support for international human rights norms. Based on this analysis, the article provides a framework for recognizing and evaluating potential responses to this dilemma that considers the salient political and ethical features of such contexts. In doing so, it demonstrates the importance of understanding the political ethics of aid suspensions and other donor responses to human rights violations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106264
JournalWorld Development
StatePublished - Aug 2023
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023


  • Aid suspensions
  • Foreign aid
  • Human rights
  • Political conditionality
  • Political dilemmas
  • Public attitudes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Sociology and Political Science


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