Foreign aid and development

Foreign Aid and Development

With the largest economy in the world, the United States has a unique opportunity to help developing countries through foreign aid. America has a long history of using its wealth to help countries in need. Successful development, however, is not easy, and often in the presidential debates, the intricacies of global interdependence — through multinational corporations, national defense, aid, or loans — get simplified. Globalization does not allow for the possibility of separating global markets from politics.

In a 2010 poll, Americans were asked to estimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid.  While the median  estimate  was  25  percent,  the  median  response for what they thought the “appropriate” percentage should be was only 10 percent. In reality, about 1 percent of the national budget is allotted to foreign aid. Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, said about the overestimate that it “may be due to Americans hearing more about [recent] aid efforts occurring in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti.” The actual investment in foreign aid is a small fraction of the discretionary budget. David Kilcullen explains in his book The Accidental Gorilla that in personnel terms, the Department of Defense is about 210 times larger than the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) and the State Department combined, and it has 350 times as large a budget.


Governor Mitt Romney believes that Americans will be better off cutting foreign aid expenses. In an October 2011 Republican primary debate, Mr. Romney passionately defended the GOP stance of questioning humanitarian assistance. He said, “I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid….We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are taking that borrowed money.” Mr. Romney’s campaign often compares President Barack Obama’s policies to those of Europe. He criticizes the Obama administration’s foreign assistance efforts as largely squandered by a fragmented Washington bureaucracy.

Mr. Romney does not prioritize encouraging good governance and stability abroad through foreign aid. “Mitt’s Plan” regarding Africa, for instance, declares in a nuanced fashion, “a Romney administration will encourage and assist African nations to adopt policies that create business-friendly environments and combat  governmental  corruption.” His campaign further argues, “greater market access across the continent for U.S. businesses will bolster job creation in Africa as well as in the United States.” While the Romney campaign rejects the notion that the United States has an obligation to rely on foreign aid in its international development efforts, Mr. Obama seeks to justify his aid policy by invoking the morality of humanitarianism.


The Obama administration has opposed cutting aid, and the 2011 budget reflects that by putting the United States on a path to double foreign assistance by 2015. The Obama campaign argues for pragmatic  budgetary  approaches  to foreign aid. In Mr. Obama’s 2012 campaign, promoting good governance through foreign aid makes sense for a range of foreign policy and development objectives. The Obama administration wants to increase foreign assistance to make investments to combat terrorism, corruption and transnational crime, improve global education and health, reduce poverty, build global food security, expand the Peace Corps, address climate change, stabilize post-conflict states, and reinforce conflict prevention. In a speech promoting good governance in Ghana, President Obama stated, “the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by — it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.” The goal remains to expand diplomatic and development capacity while renewing the United States as a global leader.

The Obama administration, however, faced a roadblock in its approach to foreign aid in the Middle East as the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011. Mr. Obama announced  that the U.S. government  would  provide  more immediate  benefits to  support  a  successful  and  prospering  democracy  for the Egyptian people, but this was not well received by the supposed beneficiaries themselves. According to a February 2012 Gallup poll, seven in ten Egyptians say they oppose U.S. economic aid to Egypt while three-quarters oppose the State Department’s efforts to fund Egypt’s pro-democracy groups. This may have been because Egyptians perceived that the Obama administration was aiming to use aid as a tool to advance U.S. strategic interests.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Isobel Coleman suggests that, led by USAID, there will be some major trends likely to endure no matter who is elected president in November. These trends include a move away from the last decade’s emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan as well as more emphasis on collaboration with the private sector. In a June 2012 op-ed, President Bill Clinton argued that the debate on foreign aid should include  a reevaluation  of the end goals.  He said, “When governments, businesses, and non-governmental organizations [NGOs] work together to share expertise and forge  creative  solutions,  everyone  can  win,  not  only  the people in developing nations but also the corporations and philanthropists  involved,  by diversifying  their  businesses, growing  their  markets,  training  more  potential  workers, and,  for  NGOs,  expanding  their  impact.” The historical trends in foreign aid, along with the irrepressible force of globalization, are perhaps greater factors than the positions of the candidates. More significant in the 2012 presidential election is the question of how Americans see themselves as global citizens.


-This article was written by Ella Crivello and appears in full in The IDEA Guide to the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections.