The politics of foreign assistance — and what that means for the presidential election.
With wide government spending cuts on the minds of many Americans, GOP presidential candidates are scrutinizing foreign aid.
At the Nov. 22 national security debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann blasted Texas Gov. Rick Perry for his proposed foreign policy to cut all foreign aid to Pakistan. Perry, with Newt Gingrich’s support, had said in an earlier debate that he would start every country’s foreign aid at zero and allow recipients to negotiate for aid dollars. Meanwhile, in separate venues, presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman has promoted U.S. foreign aid as a sound investment.
But that scrutiny might be misplaced. Deborah Bräutigam, a foreign aid expert and senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said Perry’s proposal is not feasible because the United States has too many treaties governing foreign aid, such as the 1979 Camp David accords.
“It would be extremely destabilizing,” said Bräutigam about cancelling all foreign aid. “We can’t just pull out of international commitments.”
The biggest predictor of future aid allocations is how much aid a country received in the past, said Bräutigam.
Most countries outside of Western Europe, Australia and Canada receive some degree of financial assistance from the United States. In fiscal year 2012, the requested amount for Russia is almost $65 million, while it’s nearly $13 million for China. Around $125 million has been set aside each for Ukraine and Vietnam.
Bräutigam said that one of the most surprising aspects of foreign aid is how little money goes to alleviating poverty. If foreign aid were based on the population of people living in poverty, China and India would receive the most aid.
Instead, aid allocations are based on political interests. Large allocations to countries in the Middle East, “reflect the dominating imperative of security,” Bräutigam said.
Who are the top 10 foreign-aid recipients?
According to the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, foreign assistance is intended to further America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracies and free markets.
At the same time, aid works to improve the lives of the citizens of the developing world, particularly those recovering from a natural disaster. For example, Haiti received the fourth-largest allocation in 2010 as a result of post-earthquake relief and reconstruction.
Indeed, this year the bulk of foreign aid is going to peace and security programs such as counter-terrorism initiatives and health programs such as HIV prevention.
Afghanistan tops the list of aid recipients, as it has for the past four years, with $3.2 billion requested in the president’s fiscal year 2012 budget, according to the Congressional Research Service. Aid for Afghanistan is largely split between economic development such as building infrastructure and governance such as human rights programs.
Israel receives the second largest allocation, garnering close to $3.1 billion in 2012. The entire requested amount is aimed at stabilization and security reform that includes peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
Following Israel on the list of top recipients are Pakistan at $2.9 billion, Iraq at $2.3 billion and Egypt at $1.5 billion. Most foreign aid for these countries is directed at “peace and security,” a broad category that includes combating weapons of mass destruction and counter-narcotics. Aid is also spread across democracy, education and health sectors.
These five countries have been among the top 10 recipients of U.S. foreign aid since at least 2006. And these figures only reflect dollars jointly managed by the Department of State and USAID. Foreign aid to all countries is also distributed via non-governmental organizations, field and regional offices, and worldwide programs.
Besides historical budget figures, domestic lobbying plays a big role in earmarking foreign aid. HIV and AIDS are not responsible for the most deaths — Bräutigam said malaria and maternal health are larger concerns — yet those issues draw the most support from lobbying groups.
This is evident in aid allotments to African nations. Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa have appeared on the list of top 10 recipients in recent years, primarily for HIV and AIDS prevention programs.
Ethiopia emerged as one of the top 10 recipients in 2010 even though it was not originally projected to be one in government estimates. It has remained among top budget levels in 2012. Ethiopia receives a lot of U.S. financial assistance because it is a democratic ally in combating terrorism emanating from the Horn of Africa, according to Bräutigam.
How does the public perceive foreign aid?
Total U.S. foreign aid makes up a little more than one percent of the national spending pie. Most of that government budget goes toward military defense and entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
When asked in a January 2011 USA Today/Gallup poll about ways to reduce the federal debt, 59 percent of respondents favored cutting government spending on foreign aid. Foreign aid was the only area out of the nine measured that a majority of Americans agreed should be cut. It was also the only area measured in which majorities of both self-identified Republicans and Democrats agreed on spending cuts.
While Americans are charity-oriented, they tend to be suspicious of government spending, especially in the wake of reported waste related to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, said Bräutigam.
Another reason for this popular idea may be that, in general, Americans overestimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid.
The average respondent said that an overwhelming 21 percent of the budget is spent on foreign assistance every year, according to a February 2011 poll conducted by the University of Maryland’s Center on Policy Attitudes and the School of Public Policy. Further, the average respondent said that the appropriate amount of foreign assistance is closer to 10 percent.
What’s the way ahead for foreign aid?
It’s unlikely that perceptions of foreign aid allotments will change anytime soon, considering how difficult it is to track whether funds are going where intended. Bräutigam said individual project evaluations are not done often because they can be costly.
Even though foreign aid is a politically contentious issue — and likely to remain one for some time — Bräutigam doubted it will play a role in the upcoming presidential election. She said the foreign aid budget is too small for significant political gain.
“It has become part of the political dialogue to perpetuate the idea of big government spending wildly,” Bräutigam said.
But if countries are going to graduate from foreign aid, more funding needs to go toward infrastructure, according to Bräutigam. This includes providing electricity for factories and building roads to move products.
“We’re keeping people alive with health programs, but not providing them with conditions to get jobs,” she said.