Machiavelli & Anti-Aid Campaigners


“To sum up, the most dangerous things with mercenaries is their indolence, auxiliaries their courage.”

Note on translation: Throughout this post I am referring to the JG Nichols translation released by Oneworld Classics in 2009

Machiavelli’s words from his outstanding little 16th century book warn rulers of the dangers of outside forces being used to solve domestic problems. He separates external forces in two categories:

  1. Mercenaries… “are disunited, ambitious, undisciplined, unreliable; they are bold among friends; among enemies they are cowardly… their employer’s downfall is postponed as long as the attack on him is postponed”
  2. Auxiliaries… “are those who arrive when you ask another ruler for his troops to help you to defend you”

Clearly, from the quotes above, Machiavelli was particularly negative about mercenaries. He seemed to think that  mercenaries were more inclined to stick around, after the ‘help’ had been given, and try and overthrow you once the situation had stabilised. They were at least, he conceded, probably better actual troops than auxiliaries.

As I was reading this passage it struck me that these criticisms were quite similar to those made by anti-aid campaigners about mainstream development thinking: people like Mariéme Jamme and Andrew Mwenda.

While I can get behind a general wariness of international development and believe it can and should improve, I’ve never been able to really understand where these ultra-negative viewpoints come from – but Machiavelli might be helping.

–> Do his terms describe NGOs?

A group of outsiders whose intention is to help to solve a domestic problem? Check. Outsiders who many highlight as being much more of a hindrance than a help? Check.

While, of course, there are plenty of people (myself included) who would dispute the tone used to describe them as such, it’s quite a good way of framing the debate from the point of view of those people who regularly(sic) get on stage and provoke Bono into shouting at them. To put the two terms into a modern setting:

  1. Mercenaries – Those NGOs started on an ad-hoc basis by well meaning kind-hearted souls who see a news story that makes them cry. They come roaring in to fill roles that the government are not fulfilling. See: Send A Cow, ActionAid etc
  2. Auxiliaries – The Big Boys, those INGOs who have so much money that various developing governments are willing to sign any amounts of legal concessions to get their hands on. See: UNICEF et al

–> What does it mean?

Interestingly, it seems to me that, in the modern international development setting, it is Mercenaries whose ‘courage’ is in danger – they’re more likely to lose their way, more likely to disappear or get shut down. Conversely, Auxiliaries are most dangerous for their indolence, their inactivity or the ineffective ways they choose to implement change. They are, in the words of Mariéme Jamme, “wonderful people but completely useless.”

Where does that leave people interested in development? Stumped for an answer I had a further read of The Prince and noticed this quote, one that almost perfectly encapsulates the way I understand anti-aid thinkers see the issue:

“Wise Princes have, therefore, always avoided these troops, and relied on their own; they have preferred to lose with their own men rather than win with another’s, not regarding as a victory one which was won with alien troops”

Or am I missing the reasoning entirely?

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4 thoughts on “Machiavelli & Anti-Aid Campaigners

  1. Is there a comment form where we can get in touch with the creator of this article?
    What’s the best way to reach out?

  2. I seldom comment, but I read a few of the responses
    on UpLook | Machiavelli & Anti-Aid Campaigners. I do have 2 questions for you if you tend not to mind.
    Could it be just me or do a few of the comments appear as if they are left
    by brain dead folks? 😛 And, if you are writing on other sites,
    I’d like to keep up with anything fresh you have to post. Could you post a list of the complete urls of all your shared pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

  3. Thanks a lot for the tip on the anti-aid people.

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