Is foreign aid about helping poor people, or propping up dictators?

Egypt, now in political revolution, is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, getting more than a billion dollars annually.

U.S. foreign assistance map

As this data from USAID’s excellent new Foreign Assistance Dashboard shows, nearly all of it has gone for “peace and security” — which is, of course, a euphemism for military spending.

Supporting Egypt’s outgoing (soon, yes) dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak has been the primary motive for that aid, partly because of Egypt’s relatively friendly stance as an Arab nation toward us and toward Israel.

Two problems jump out from today’s news:

1) The downside of supporting dictators.

This arrangement — aiding a dictatorship — has put the U.S. government once again awkwardly in the middle of a fight between an oppressor and the oppressed people.

As FDR once supposedly said when someone complained to him about our support of a certain Central American dictator: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch but at least he’s our son-of-bitch.” Mubarak was our SOB in Egypt, and so here we are again.

Some pundits are, of course, saying we should stop funding dictatorships.

The Egyptian military, interestingly, has not supported Mubarak so far and has thrown its US-funded weight and weaponry behind the protesters. So, maybe we can eventually claim credit for funding this revolution.

2) Military aid vs. development aid.

However this shakes out as a matter of geopolitics, I wonder if anyone in the Obama Administration is factoring in what’s happened in Egypt as part of the effort to re-invent foreign aid.

My question is:

Are we going to keep using foreign aid primarily for political leverage?

Alternatively, we could use some other mechanism for political support, and focus “foreign aid” on providing assistance to the neediest people.

In other words, when we send military support to our allies, whether or not they’re dictators, maybe we should call it something else. Here’s something I wrote earlier on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taking the risk of confusing aid with foreign policy.


About Author

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • KathleenB

    Hi Tom,
    Nice commentary on the diplomacy vs. development debate. I’m sure you know about this already, but just in case anybody else is interested, the World Affairs Council in Seattle is hosting a talk by Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann titled “The State Department & USAID: The Broken Civilian Component of National Security.” More info is available at

    • Tom Paulson

      Thanks Kathleen,

      I hope to come and would likewise encourage folks to attend this event on Feb. 16 and learn more about these initiatives aimed at better merging our military and diplomatic policies with foreign aid.

      The U.S. military already does a lot of humanitarian and foreign aid (e.g., the floods in Pakistan) but there are many organizations (World Vision, Oxfam, others) who are concerned that too close a melding of military/political objectives with humanitarian endeavors is fraught with peril.

  • Weh Yeoh


    This is a really nice post and does highlight the dangers of foreign aid which is not for purely altruistic reasons alone. For your information, we’re going through a review of our foreign aid currently in Australia, and a lot of similar themes are coming up in discussion. There’s some really good discussion going on at our blog here, which I think you might find interesting. For example, our AID is handled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has the stated purpose of forwarding our “national interest”. Not separating aid from national interest is fraught with dangers which you have highlighted so well here.

    You can find the discussion in the comments here:

    • Tom Paulson

      Thanks Weh,

      I took a look at your site and appreciate that folks are discussing this in “normal” language rather than the typical wonk speak. Looks good. I’ll try to keep tabs on how the discussion proceeds down under, and hope it informs how we here in the U.S. seek to re-invent our approach to foreign aid.