The International Politics of Authoritarianism

This week’s seminar stressed the following notion: that authoritarianism is not created in a domestic vacuum – as a regime it is a result of, and continues to play a major part in, global politics.

Although authoritarianism is more prevalent in the Global South – richer countries and Western democracies have undeniably played a role in promoting the regimes, for example through aid. A quick glance at OECD statistics combined with Freedom House Index rankings, shows that of the top 10 recipients of aid worldwide only one of those countries (India) is classified as ‘Free’, with the majority labelled as ‘Not Free’.

Harmful relationships between the Global North and South is not a new phenomenon in our Development studies, the starkest example being colonialism and the structural adjustment programmes that followed. However, returning to the topic of this seminar, how exactly does this relationship, and aid specifically, promote authoritarian regimes?

From my own professional experience working on funding applications to UK and Australian government aid agencies, I know first-hand the many loopholes recipients of their funds jump through to provide robust plans and assurances for due diligence – that aid monies will further development aims and not cause harm. However, a new concept introduced in this seminar was the ‘fungibility’ of aid. My understanding of the idea is that despite money being channelled into the country for specific development purposes, it can nonetheless end up being used for other means and thereby indirectly support authoritarian regimes.

Therefore, the more unconditional the aid, the more risks this carries for strengthening authoritarian and damaging regimes – as seen in the case of China’s financial assistance to Africa and Central Asia (Sharshenova and Crawford, 2017).

Putting the specifics of aid-giving aside, there are further underlying factors related to geopolitics that encourage the funding of certain regimes. In the wake of 9/11 Western countries have fed large amounts of capital into global security and militarisation including in authoritarian regimes such as Chad (Fisher and Anderson, 2015). The same countries have also strategically used this war on terror to receive funds and strengthen their regimes (Fisher and Anderson, 2015).

Although it is momentarily useful to look at the international dynamics of authoritarianism through a Global North/South lens, if I were to revisit this topic I would focus more on the influential relationships that exist between countries within the same Global category (for example, the increasing wave of autocratic fervour within the Global North). I believe these relationships, as well as those between major Global South autocracies such as the Arab monarchies, are becoming increasingly important to consider.



Fisher, J and Anderson, DM (2015). “Authoritarianism and the Securitization of Development in Africa”, International Affairs, 91 (1): 131-151.

Sharshenova, A and Crawford, G (2017). “Undermining Western Democracy Promotion in Central Asia: China’s Countervailing Influences, Powers and Impact”, Central Asian Survey, 36 (4): 453-472.

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