Should democratic governments that value human rights and civil liberties provide financial assistance to autocracies in times of dire need? It’s a catch-22: If they don’t, citizens may suffer because of possible reductions in services and financial stability. If they do, they may prop up that government at a time when it is likely to be most vulnerable to political challenges. Similar questions faced Western governments in the dying days of apartheid when the issue concerned divestment.
Now the shoe is on the other foot as South Africa is bailing out King Mswati III’s government, just as he continues to lead an unrepentantly luxurious lifestyle while maintaining an autocratic government that severely curtails political freedoms. Some South Africans want to “starve the beast.” Others point out that if they don’t “engage,” China or some other country surely will provide the resources and South Africa will lose its political leverage.
It’s a difficult call, but lately I am wondering if the “tough love” option isn’t exercised often enough, and we really don’t know how well it would work. I don’t want to be glib — the Swazi government says it is grateful for South Africa’s loan so it can fund public schools and ARV treatment for its huge HIV-positive population. And even short-term reductions of those services would be disastrous. But Africa’s only absolute monarchy is much less likely to fall if good governments provide favorable financial support and especially without clear conditions for reform.