Where, and to what, does foreign aid money go?

Chances are, most Americans were surprised to learn that Egypt has been the second or third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid over the years — and, perhaps, that most of that foreign aid was for military spending.

Nobody was hiding this from us, but I suspect few of us ever pay much attention to where our foreign aid money goes and what it goes for (as well as how little we actually do give).

Members of Congress are now paying more attention, specifically at all that foreign aid we’ve given to Egypt while neglecting to appreciate what was actually going on there. But the problem of tracking where foreign aid goes — and defining it, I would argue — is not unique to us, or to the crisis in Egypt.

Surprisingly, given all the attention and rhetoric around foreign aid, it’s been a relatively opaque activity. This article written last fall by The Guardian’s Jonathan Glennie provides a good explanation of why “we need greater transparency” in foreign aid. Says Glennie:

There are two groups of people who tend to be against this sort of transparency: bureaucrats and politicians.

But a new international agreement is being celebrated as a major step forward aimed at making foreign aid more open and accountable to the public. The agreement, called the International Aid Transparency Initiative, is being widely hailed as “revolutionary” in development circles.

We’ll see. But I do give credit to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for moving in this direction on its own with the very informative and user-friendly website Foreign Assistance Dashboard.

Here’s a Dutch perspective on this new agreement. Note that the Dutch people protested planned cuts in foreign aid. Can you imagine Americans protesting cuts in foreign aid?

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.