What is foreign aid for?

What is foreign aid for?

Foreign aid is once again under fire. Every so often a few politicians — usually Republicans — get up in arms about our government’s gift of large amounts of money to other countries. Equally often, media stories appear detailing how ineffective aid supposedly is. The picture emerges that foreign aid is unnecessary, ineffective, and wasteful.

For example, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) released a proposal last week to cut the budget for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by $1.39 billion as part of a broader package of deficit-reduction proposals. (Hat tip to our friends at The Cable for their post on the subject.) There were similar rumblings after the Republican takeover in 1994. Republicans seem to have an inborn suspicion — usually dormant, but one that fitfully flares up once per decade — that aid is just a handout from rich countries to poor ones to help the former ease their consciences.

Or take the lengthy Wall Street Journal story last week that declares, "A massive U.S. aid program that has made Pakistan the world’s second-largest recipient of American economic and development assistance is facing serious challenges, people involved in the effort say. The ambitious civilian-aid program is intended in part to bolster support for the U.S. in the volatile and strategically vital nation. But a host of problems on the ground are hampering the initiative." Despite billions of aid, the United States remains unpopular in Pakistan; thus, the article implies, aid is ineffective.

These criticisms of foreign aid rest on faulty notions of what aid is and what it is supposed to accomplish. There are two views of aid reflected here, neither of which are helpful.

  • National bribery. Some people think that the United States gives money to other countries to be popular. On this view, if the United States lavishes the Pakistanis with enough money, they will respect the United States. The problem is that if someone did this on an individual level, the United States would call it craven, insecure, and insulting — which is probably how it is perceived by the Pakistanis. Aid as bribery doesn’t work. Money can’t buy me love — not individually, and not between states.
  • Charity. Others seem to think that the United States gives money out of the pure, unalloyed goodness of our hearts. Foreign aid is an extension of private goodness. Individually, we give money to the Salvation Army or World Vision so they can help our fellow man on the far side of the world. Foreign aid is functionally the same thing: the United States gives our tax dollars to USAID to do the same kind of charity work as NGOs. But why should the U.S. be charitable to someone in Nepal just because they live in an exotic country when there are Americans who need help? Additionally, there is no logical limit to how far the United States’s charity could extend. The United States could bankrupt itself trying to save the world.

I propose a third view of foreign aid.

  • Strategic investment. Foreign aid helps countries whose interests align with our own increase their capacities. The United States gives money to help select countries — not the entire world — improve specific abilities, like their ability to provide public security, defend their borders, or buy and sell goods.

The advantage of this view is that it is realistic. The United States can actually do this. The U.S. is not trying to change people’s heart or minds, contrary to the bribery view. It is only trying to change their capacity. Additionally, this view helps the U.S. prioritize which countries should get aid, and what kind, contrary to the charity view. Giving billions to Tuvalu would be a commendable act of charity for the Salvation Army, but it would be folly for USAID because Tuvalu is not a strategic priority for the United States.

(I am not arguing that we should never be charitable. Rather, every possible foreign aid program is an act of charity. Charity by itself cannot help us decide which charitable programs to undertake. The United States either has to flip a coin to allocate our charity randomly, or consult our own interests to allocate it strategically.)

The Marshall Plan is a good model. The United States gave something like $25 billion (in today’s dollars) per year to Western Europe after World War II. It was undoubtedly an act of charity. The money helped the Europeans rebuild their economies and saved tens of millions of people from poverty or even starvation. But it was also a strategic investment. Policymakers at the time worried about a return of the Great Depression following demobilization and the Marshall Plan helped Europe become a strong trading partner for the United States. Most importantly, U.S. officials feared the rise of Soviet power and hoped the Plan would bolster European governments’ stability and prevent the spread of communism.

This view of foreign aid would help protect it from the kind of cuts the congressional Republicans are proposing. Aid is hard power. It is a weapon the United States uses to strengthen allies and, thus, ourselves. But this view would also help save it from the kind of limitless, grandiose visions Democrats sometimes seem to have for it. This is the sort of view that I hoped Secretary of State Clinton would incorporate in the recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. But despite the document’s many strengths it did not seem to offer a framework for prioritizing among the Unites States’ many foreign aid opportunities.