The foreign aid package for FY 2016 is estimated to be $33.7 billion. As the federal deficit continues and national debt reaches great proportions, there are many with the false belief that reigning in foreign aid should be a simple part of the solution. Considering that according to a Gallup poll, Americans believe that foreign aid adds up to about 25% of US expenditures, it illustrates the general lack of knowledge among Americans. For budget hawks everywhere, it is not the place to start to get serious. Still, it is important that we question the need for foreign aid in the first place.
Foreign aid was almost non-existent prior to World II. Of course afterwards, it was a key tool in the arsenal of weapons used against Communist expansion around the world. John Kennedy took it to new heights and placed foreign aid on steroids and created the Peace Corps along the way. We sometimes hear people likening existing foreign aid to the promises and successes of the Marshall Plan. Obviously, the recipients of Marshall Plan aid are more pro-American than today’s recipients of foreign aid.
Among foreign aid experts there is an inside joke: if you want to know which countries hate us the most, just look at the ones receiving the most foreign aid. During Mubarek’s time in Egypt, he was receiving $1.5 billion in aid while only 16% of Egyptians had a favorable view of the United States. Despite receiving $600 million in aid, only 14% of Jordanians have a favorable view and Palestinians, who have received the greatest sums of international money including $500 million from the US, the results are the same as in Egypt. While foreign aid money does not cause hatred of the United States, throwing money at countries with an unfavorable view of the United States does not change their beliefs.
Instead, some suggest that foreign aid be viewed as an investment. If so, then there should be a return on that investment. Despite increases in foreign aid every year, there seems to be more trouble spots around the world and greater disapproval, if not hatred, of the United States in the world today. If “good will” is the return on that investment, then clearly we are failing in that area with one exception. While receiving $3 billion in aid (all of it for defense and security purposes), 85% of Israelis have a positive view of the United States.
Before handing out American taxpayer dollars overseas, one has to ask the purpose of foreign aid. Is it to bolster a foreign economy? Help in counter-terrorism efforts? Ensure their security? Advance human rights? One has to question why, for example, we would fund a gay film festival in Bulgaria. All these reasons are cited for the need for foreign aid.
Most importantly, we need to look at recipients of foreign aid. Why, for example, should the US grant $27.2 million in foreign aid to China when that country holds over $1 trillion in US debt in the form of Treasury bills? If they could afford to purchase $1 trillion in debt, they don’t need the aid. But the proponents will tell you that $27.2 million went towards advancing human rights in China. Really? If that is the rationale, then clearly it is $27.2 million wasted since China has a notoriously bad human rights record. It also fails to explain why a relatively rich country like Brazil receives foreign aid and holds US debt also. Most of Brazil’s foreign aid goes to economic development programs, yet if they can afford to buy billions of dollars of US debt, surely they do not need the foreign aid.
Secondly, most foreign aid is short-sighted. In 2001, tiny Lebanon received $50 million in foreign aid in a country with several terrorist groups actively seeking American targets and where the Lebanese population had a 18% favorable view of America. Conversely, the African country of Mali was considered the most liberally democratic Muslim-majority country at the time and one of the most stable democracies in Africa. For their merits, they received $30 million. If there is to be foreign aid, shouldn’t we also reward success stories since the history of foreign aid shows that the United States cannot buy success, just the facade of it- and only for short periods of time. And in terms of international aid (including huge sums from the US) for non-military/security purposes, the Palestinians have received the most over the past decade while having nothing to show for it other than the ability to dig tunnels and shoot rockets at Israel.
And like all things with the government, they are not the best administrators of programs. It would make more sense to eliminate or merge the more than 20 US agencies that dispense US foreign aid, or subcontract the jobs out to NGOs which have a proven track record of getting a better bang for the buck. Many have noted that US efforts in places like the Sudan and Somalia only made a bad situation worse and fed a culture of corruption. We sent vast sums of food and other items to Sudan to fight the famine in Darfur only to learn that it was Sudanese leaders starving their own people.
We also need to look to which programs foreign aid goes and we discover that health is at the top of the list with fighting AIDS/HIV in Africa and Asia being the biggest expenditure. Also, listed among the nine areas by the government is “unspecified” which totals $600 million. Let’s call it what it is- a foreign aid slush fund lacking in transparency and accountability.
After many years and many more billions of dollars, it is obvious that American largesse has not “bought” the hearts and minds of the international community and that reality is likely to continue well into the future. In the dog-eat-dog world of international relations where every man is out for themselves, the United States plays the role of sucker while foreign governments and people take the good intentions of the American people for granted is if we are somehow obligated to even offer foreign aid. The government’s own website states that foreign aid is a moral imperative, among other reasons. Really? It is a moral imperative to grant foreign aid to countries that hate us and where we have no interests? At what point did the United States become a charity?
Instead, if there is to be foreign aid, then it should be predicated upon quid pro quo relationships with more “pro” heading the American way. You want American aid, then repay us in kind be it good will, assistance in the fight on terrorism, using your military in regional conflicts, opening your markets to American goods, etc. Under Bush, seventeen discrete criteria were identified as a basis to receive foreign aid- things like education of females, a working justice system, etc. That has been largely ignored. That needs to change. It is time that America sees a real return on foreign aid besides rhetoric. Being a pessimist in this area, we could start to save some of that $37 billion in foreign aid for the truly worthy with the remainder going towards deficit reduction or domestic needs.