Aiding the Future

Does U.S. foreign assistance really work?


International-development circles in Washington are abuzz with hope that U.S. foreign-aid policy might finally be getting a much-needed overhaul. Critics have long complained that U.S. assistance comes with too many conditions and that too much of the money goes to U.S. companies and consultants. But now, those same mumblings are coming from the government itself.

In a recent interview with, U.S. President Barack Obama said he hoped to amend U.S. foreign-aid policies that mean "Western consultants and administrative costs end up gobbling huge percentages of our aid overall." On July 10, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review intended to look at improving the effectiveness of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Several reform-minded bills have also been introduced in Congress.

On the heels of Obama’s first visit to Africa and with the reform debate ramping up, Foreign Policy and Oxfam America held a panel discussion on July 16 to debate the future of U.S. foreign assistance. Along with Oxfam’s director of aid effectiveness, prominent Africans from civil society, the media, and government were asked to share what is and is not working with regard to U.S. policies. Excerpts:

Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America

What do we know [about foreign aid] that actually works? For Oxfam that is about [local] ownership. Why do we care about ownership? Because all the aid in the world is not going to get the bottom billion out of poverty. We all know it. If we want sustainable solutions, it’s about [local states and citizens] working together in a political and economic compact where states actually care about having legitimacy from their citizens.

Right now if you’re a USAID professional on the ground and you’re trying to build local country capacity, essentially, you have to use U.S. contractors and even [U.S.] NGOs, because they’re the only ones who understand the complexities of the Washington bureaucratic system. People aren’t getting the contracts because they’re the most capable at leaving sustainable capacity behind. We’ve got to fix that.

Wore Gana Seck, Green Senegal

We think that [U.S.] development assistance has too many conditionalities. It is like they give you a box of sweets, but before arriving at the box of sweets, you have cactus. You have to jump through cactus before going to the sweets. Before you arrive at this aid you have to do that, you have to do this — and it’s just not really effective.

The change is what people really will feel in the field. Do I have water? Can I send my kids to school? Can I travel? Can I have enough food? It’s not just aid. It’s economic; it’s social; it’s environmental. It’s about equity and solidarity.

Andrew M. Mwenda, The Independent (Uganda)

In their search for revenues to sustain themselves in power, Africa’s rulers do not find it in their own interest to build productive and profitable arrangements with their own citizens. Governments in Africa find it much more productive to enter negotiations with the international community for aid. If governments had to depend on their own citizens for revenues, they would be driven — by self-interest — to listen to their citizens about the policies and institutions necessary for economic growth.

The result of aid is actually to disarticulate the state from the citizen. The citizen in Africa does not look at the state as an institution that is supposed to serve the common good. Instead, they begin looking at the state as a patron who gives gifts that fall from heaven like manna. In this case they fall from the Western world in the form of aid.

Aid should be aimed at promoting innovation, not at rewarding failure. Currently, aid goes to countries that have failed, and therefore, aid tends to be a reward for failure. Even in dysfunctional states, you may find pockets of efficiency — some public institutions that perform a very good function. I think those should be supported. Uganda has a very incompetent and corrupt state, so my view is that you should not give money to the state of Uganda. But the state of Uganda is not homogeneous. There are pockets of efficiency in that ocean of incompetence.

Of all Western governments, I find the U.S. government to have the most corrupt and patronage-ridden political system. If the U.S. president says, "I am putting up $15 billion for XYZ," that money must be appropriated by Congress. The moment Congress sits to discuss that money, lobbyists arrive. By the time Congress appropriates that money, for every dollar, 80 cents has been chopped off to U.S. companies. So American aid is not about the recipient; it is about American companies. How then do you change that? It is up to you Americans. American aid is the most inefficient type of aid I have looked at.

O. Natty B. Davis, Minister of State, Liberia

In most post-conflict situations, usually you have had a breakdown of the government. You have an increase in nonstate actors [such as international charities and NGOs] that are delivering basic services [instead] of government. You’re trying to recover that process [so that the] government [is] delivering those services.

At the time of the inauguration of [Liberian] President [Ellen Johnson] Sirleaf’s government [in 2006, the budget] was about $80 million per annum. The current budget is $371 million. If you look at that three-year period, there hasn’t really been substantial growth in the economy. We have been able to plug a lot of the gaps where money was going in so many different directions, and we’ve been able to improve tax administration. However, international development assistance continues to remain a significant component of what we need to get our work done effectively. Our estimates [of that amount] are around $500 million, but the total may be somewhere in excess of $650 million. We’ve moved from a point where we didn’t know anything at all [about where aid money was going] to a point where we’ve developed an aid-tracking tool. The development partner that is most difficult to get [this] information from is the U.S. government.

When you have weak institutions and weak systems, there is a greater need for strong leadership. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had that in Liberia. However, we have to gradually move away from dependence on strong leadership to strong institutions that are responsible and offer accountability and transparency in the work that they do.

Paul O’Brien is the director of the aid effectiveness team at Oxfam America.

Wore Gana Seck is executive director of Green Senegal, an environmental NGO.

Andrew M. Mwenda is founder and managing editor of The Independent, a newsmagazine based in Kampala, Uganda.

O. Natty B. Davis is Liberia’s minister of state without portfolio and senior advisor to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.


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