The misleading use of the term ‘foreign aid’ in two charts

Pallets of food, water and supplies sit on the flight line at the airport in Haiti. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Candice Villarreal/Released)

The term ‘foreign aid’ likely brings up different definitions for different people in the United States. Some might point to the operating budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Others could think of the money given directly to other governments. Or, as the U.K. successfully lobbied, a combination of varying programs that include military spending.

It makes having public discussions about foreign aid all the more difficult when everyone is not on the same page. For example, this chart by Forbes shows how much money the U.S. gives to other countries in the form of assistance. It is based on the budget request made by the White House last year which Congress did not entirely accept, but it is not all that different than how the money will be spent this year.

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It should come as little surprise that the spending is directly correlated to U.S. foreign interests. Politicians and leaders sell foreign aid as a way to advance U.S. priorities. There is mention of doing good and helping save lives, but the rhetoric is always centered on the fact that we stand to directly benefit.

“Our goal is to use assistance and development to help nations realize their own potential, develop their own ability to govern and become our economic partners,” said Secretary of State John Kerry at the University of Virginia in 2013.

“Let me be very clear. Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It’s not charity. It is an investment in a strong America and in a free world. Foreign assistance lifts other people up and then reinforces their willingness to link arms with us in common endeavors. And when we help others crack down on corruption, that makes it easier for our own compliance against corruption, and it makes it easier for our companies to do business as well.”

Foreign assistance spending does not necessarily go to the countries that need development assistance. As this chart based on 2015 U.S. foreign assistance spending shows, the size of a country’s economy does not necessarily correlate with how much assistance it receives from the U.S.

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It is not a uniquely U.S. problem. An analysis of foreign aid spending in Africa reveals that donors are not reaching the poorest people. Researcher Ryan Briggs combed through the data and found that most aid money goes to capital cities not because they are where most people are located, but they are where most wealthy people live. It is not just capital cities. He finds that richer regions tend to get more aid than others.

There are precise definitions when policymakers and insiders use phrases like foreign aid, foreign assistance, and official development system. They matter but do not necessarily mean that everyone else understands the differences.

It is a favorite tactic by foreign aid supporters to say that the average American thinks 25 percent of the budget is spent on aid when it is really less than 1 percent. That too illustrates just how little people really understand these terms, making it all the harder to bring up the finer details of how the money is spent.

The two charts do not adequately sum up U.S. foreign aid, but they represent how some view the term. That should not be ignored.


Thanks to David Walker for flagging the charts.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.