To be sure, the United States used to actually aid developing countries a long time ago. Sure, the country still doles out cash and kind to exemplars of freedom 'n' growth such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, but it appears those times may not last for much longer. "Strengthening fragile states" and "supporting US geostrategic interests," they call it. But, the honest explanation of where the cash for "American aid" comes from is neither from the goodness of their hearts--witness the star donor list above--nor from America per se. Given the size of its external obligations, think of the United States as running a debt-for-aid complex wherein it takes money from Asian exporters and Mideast energy exporters and so forth, attaches strings which mandate benefiting American entities at the expense of local ones [see below for a review], and then "aids" contemporary recipients by recycling American donors' largesse. Cut out the middleman, I say, and change USAID's laughable motto above while you're at it.
Which brings us to another substantive point aside from the fundamental fallibility of "American aid": given that it is mainly meant to buttress US strategic objectives more than anything else, do the shining successes of the aforementioned countries inspire the American public at large to give more? Fortunately, the CFR has an informative new entry on how budgetary constraints together with Bushbama notions that aid spending is tied with security in a "soft power" sense no longer holds water with more and more Republicans. Here are the more interesting Q&As:
The House measure [on overseas development aid] still has to pass the full House and has to be reconciled with Senate priorities, but what does the panel's bill indicate about the trajectory of the debate over foreign aid?
It's clear that in this budgetary environment, everything has to be on the table. You can't simply have State Department operations and foreign assistance as a sacred cow. Everyone realizes that there has to be cuts. But already this year, there have been draconian reductions in State Department budgets that surpass [those called for in] other agencies. For instance, the fiscal 2011 budget got slashed by $8 billion in a deal that was struck to avoid a government shutdown in April. So, already, the State department has taken a hit.
Apparently most [conservative policymakers] don't accept the argument the Obama administration has been making, and which the Bush administration made, which is that the State Department and USAID and are parts of a larger national security budget. The perennial difficulty with the so-called "international operations account," which includes State and USAID, is that there is no national constituency for those programs. When you look at the Pentagon and its gargantuan budget, it's likely that every single congressional district in the United States has either a U.S. military installation or a defense contractor.
It seems foreign aid is already declining and perhaps pegged for future cuts. Can foreign aid get leaner without harming foreign policy?
The current context is that foreign aid has gone up significantly over the last few years. These are cuts to foreign aid that had been increasing in part as a result of 9/11, and also as part of U.S. national security strategy where [the argument that] it was important to increase soft power resources. But the argument that these are soft power resources that we really need to nurture is in question right now. Is there a way to make it leaner and more effective? There have been a lot of efforts to do that. There's been increased emphasis on aid effectiveness within the Obama administration—but one of the ironies of the proposed cuts would be to actually eliminate the budgetary office at USAID geared to improving aid effectiveness.
One problem with foreign aid is it is tied by law to use of U.S. service providers and U.S. sourced materials and commodities—whether it's agricultural goods or technical assistance or other things. Often what's happening is that money ends up actually being spent in the United States, and rather little is spent on procuring things locally within the target countries—helping to build productive and institutional capacity in those countries [my emphasis].
So, you could always do better. There are ways for you to do as well or conceivably even better with less, but you would have to change the paradigm in which we actually deliver foreign assistance--have it be far-less donor driven and donor implemented, and really try to cultivate local partners.
What should the United States be doing on foreign aid going forward, given the debt debate and the country's significant fiscal restraints and political climate?
There's going to have to be some cuts in foreign aid. Those cuts should be proportional and no more than those made to the rest of the federal budget. U.S. foreign aid could definitely be more effective and efficient if there were consolidation of the many spigots in which foreign aid comes out. So many of the different aspects of foreign assistance are not only spread across scores of different U.S. government entities, but they also are subject to the jurisdiction of multiple congressional committees and subcommittees.
The Obama administration should sit down with members of Congress and look at areas of potential consolidation—but [negotiations] will require some compromise from members of congress who don't want to give up jurisdiction over appropriations. That's a serious conversation that we need to have.
The other thing is that we definitely need to look hard at just some of these huge Pentagon weapons programs that we frankly don't need. There are some people who just refuse to cut anything having to do with defense because they don't want to look weak. But it's just totally irresponsible to be going after these important civilian power resources, and at the same time providing something of a blank check to the Pentagon.
Can we afford it? Does it benefit ordinary citizens instead of ostensibly friendly regimes? With pressure mounting on reducing America's gutbusting deficits, you have to wonder if there are any major downsides anyway to weaning the world off US aid. Unburdening the white man of borrowing from coloured people to "aid" to other coloured people while attaching strings that benefit mainly himself in the process--what's there to miss?