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The Donor’s Dilemma: International Aid and Human Rights Violations*


Donor governments face a dilemma when providing development aid to states that violate human rights. While aid may contribute to positive development outcomes, it may also contribute to rights violations committed by these regimes. This article provides a conceptual framework for donors to address this dilemma in a normatively justified way. Drawing on recent methodological advancements in normative political theory, it develops a distinctively political framework of dilemmas, suggesting three models: complicity, double effect and dirty hands. It considers this framework in the context of development aid, discussing the relevant considerations for donors in different cases. The article demonstrates that an approach to development assistance that acknowledges political realities does not have to be normatively silent.

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International Development Department, School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham (email:; Max Weber Postdoctoral Programme, European University Institute (email: Authors’ names are listed alphabetically. Both authors have contributed equally to the article. We would like to thank Jeremy Armon, Alex Braithwaite, Philipp Broniecki, Frederik Hjorthen, David Hudson, Heather Marquette, Neil Mitchell, Shmuel Nili, Sarah O’Connor, Avia Pasternak, Chris Roche, Jennifer Rubenstein, Hannah Smidt and Cheryl Stonehouse for their incredibly helpful feedback and advice. We would also like to thank the three anonymous reviewers and editor of British Journal of Political Science for their invaluable comments.

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