Should The U.S. Rethink The $30 Billion It Spends on Foreign Aid?

Foreign aid is an issue that deserves more attention in the public’s political conversations. Every year, the United States doles out over $30 billion worth of development projects, special loans, and government initiatives, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Thirty billion dollars is a sizable amount of capital; the money could just as easily be used on domestic programs, like unemployment benefits or farm subsidies. Instead, $30 billion goes to military and economic aid for countries like Haiti, Pakistan, and Sudan — to name a few. In fall 2013, the United States resumed its military aid to Pakistan, an annual $2 billion setback, much of which, according to the New York Times‘ Thom Shanker, “goes to reimburse Pakistan for conducting military operations to fight terrorism.”

Using military aid to combat terrorism in foreign countries might be seen as an effective use of taxpayer dollars, but is it really that effective? And what about other forms of foreign aid, primarily economic aid?

In December, Michael Kelley of Business Insider released a list of “the 18 most corrupt countries in the world.” Interestingly enough, 4 of those same countries were also top recipients of U.S. foreign aid in 2011, according to USAID’s “U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants” report. Those countries were Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, and Sudan. How could someone justify giving foreign aid to these 4 countries, especially if said person already disapproves of excessive foreign aid spending?

It is clear from the past that foreign aid does succeed in improving America’s image abroad and helping recipient countries. With regard to the former, a 2009/2010 BBC poll indicated that in countries that receive large amounts of U.S. foreign aid, the perception of American power tends to be more positive. Countries like Kenya, Nigeria, and the Philippines, all major American aid recipients, view U.S. power positively, to the tune of 85 percent, 64 percent, and 82 percent, respectively.

Additionally, American foreign aid has produced positive results in the countries for whom the aid was spent. In an article for Foreign Policy, titled “The Case for Aid,” Jeffrey Sachs argues that “the aid successes of the past decade have saved millions of lives, a worthy use of money (which has totaled just a tiny fraction of rich world income) on its own.”

Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post wrote a similar argument many weeks earlier:

“The case for redirecting spending — particularly truly wasteful spending, such as much of the defense budget or farm payments or unnecessary medical payments — toward more aid to the third world is extremely strong.”

At the same time, both economic and military aid present ethical problems for the United States. Dambisa Moyo argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that “a constant stream of ‘free money’ is a perfect way to keep an inefficient or simply bad government in power.”

And with regard to supplying foreign countries with military aid, the ethical problems become even greater. In October 2013, Hayes Brown of Think Progress reported that President Obama had issued blanket waivers from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2009 to Yemen, Chad, and Sudan — countries with child soldiers — so that those nations could receive military aid. Sudan already receives more American aid than most other countries.

Charles Abugre perhaps best reconciled the promise and perils of foreign aid in an article for CNN.com:

Is aid good or bad? That depends on, among other things, the way it is provided, the motives behind it, what it is used for, the domestic policies and interventions to guide it, and the quality of political leadership.”

In the end, the American public is already skeptical of foreign aid. In February 2013, 48 percent of Americans said they would decrease spending for “aid to the world’s needy.” Only 28 percent wished to maintain spending levels. The annual $30 billion that America spends on foreign aid could be put to use domestically. Perhaps it’s time to rethink foreign aid.