Dissolve USAID and Revamp Foreign Aid - Commentary

Last month, I wrote about how much money the United States has wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan—not in terms of the military mission, which I continue to support, but rather because of the misguided notion that development assistance and foreign assistance bring security.

The problem with foreign assistance runs deeper. Many proponents of aid point out that the United States gives a smaller percentage of its GDP to foreign assistance than many smaller states. Speaking at the National Defense University last month, President Obama bought into this trope.

I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures that there is. That’s true for Democrats and Republicans–I’ve seen the polling–even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. In fact, a lot of folks think it’s 25 percent, if you ask people on the streets. Less than one percent–still wildly unpopular. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security. And it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. 

The complaint about foreign aid is dishonest for several reasons.

  • First, Americans give far more in charity than do their European counterparts: Just because aid is not coming from the government does not mean it is not American assistance.
  • Second, Sweden may at first glance give a higher proportion of both its GDP and budget, but when push comes to shove, America still gives more. To be blunt: the U.S. military does more to save people than to kill them. The U.S. military formed the backbone of tsunami relief in the Indian Ocean basin during the 2004 tsunami, and restored airport operations to enable relief in Haiti following that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. If the cost of such operations is factored in, then the United States gives much more. (As an aside, sequestration and the resulting lack of naval readiness will mean that victims of the next massive natural disaster may have to fend for themselves, unless Swedes, Danes, or Norwegians find their own aircraft carrier.)
  • Many extremists—and most terrorists—are actually quite well-off and educated. The 9/11 bombers, for example, came from privileged upbringings, and the Boston bombers had access to a better education than many other residents in Boston. If policy were based strictly on the data, then the path to counter-terrorism would be to de-emphasize education and encourage poverty. I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, but it is important to recognize that ideology drives terrorism, not simply grievance or poverty. Just throwing money at countries does not make America more secure.

Foreign aid may represent less than one percent of the federal budget, but that alone is not justification for waste. Simply put, neither the State Department nor the White House have, across administrations, been able to propose metrics to demonstrate that foreign aid as currently distributed actually improves American security or furthers American interests. Most of the money is simply wasted on bureaucratic bloat, ill thought-out projects, conferences, or amorphous goals that provide no lasting benefit for the people. Management of aid money is notoriously bad, especially when people like disgraced former mayor and diplomat Andrew Young is put in charge.

While American administrations across parties will often pay lip service to democratization, a major problem with foreign aid is it actually promotes poor governance. Building schools, hospitals, and housing should be the job of the government, not a foreign aid organization. If such basic responsibilities of government are assumed by outsiders, then corrupt governments have no disincentive against pursuit of counterproductive social agendas or terror sponsorship.

The simple fact is that foreign aid has:

  • Encouraged corruption and poor governance in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Been the bane of Palestinian development. The best way to encourage the Palestinians to develop a functioning economy and responsible state would be to wean them off outside assistance altogether and eliminate UNRWA.
  • Passage and implementation of the Kerry-Lugar amendment and provision of its nearly $7 billion in assistance has increased rather than decreased anti-Americanism in Pakistan.
  • Failed to promote responsible government in Egypt. Rather than throw a lifeline to the Muslim Brotherhood, it should be an American interest to see the Muslim Brotherhood fail and retire disgraced. No, Egypt is not too big to fail.

Rather than continue USAID as it is now structured, dissolve the organization. The time has come to defer items such as “capacity building” (whatever that means in practice) to endowments and NGOs, and dispense with contributing any development assistance to any state which votes with the United States less than—let’s say arbitrarily—80 percent of the time at the United Nations. There might be notable exceptions: Let the U.S. focus on disaster relief—where Washington can actually win hearts and minds—or promoting foreign direct investment by American companies which will benefit far more people at home and abroad than do USAID programs now.

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