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With Bin Laden’s death, foreign aid to Pakistan under the microscope

US foreign aid map

Now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, many are taking a hard look at the massive U.S. program of foreign aid to Pakistan — about $3 billion a year, half of that to pay them for helping us fight terrorism.

I hope they’ll take a hard look not just at what we’re getting for the money but why we give it.

What exactly are we trying do with what we call foreign aid?

We actually give very little, per capita and compared to most wealthy nations. And we seem to be giving it mostly for political reasons.

When Egypt erupted in popular protest against dictatorship, many Americans (including, apparently some members of Congress!) were surprised to learn that Egypt was the second or third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid — and that most of that “aid” went to buy military supplies.

The new (or renewed) scrutiny on aid to Pakistan — which is also right up there at the top of our list of beneficiaries — is largely prompted by the belief that the Pakistani government, allegedly our ally in the region, has been almost useless in the search for Bin Laden and the fight against Al Qaeda.

Others go farther, suggesting that some in the Pakistani government must have known of Bin Laden’s compound, located close to the capital city of Islamabad and a military base.

Early reports of the daring military operation that ended with the terrorist leader’s death say the U.S. did this without Pakistani assistance, and without informing the Pakistan government.

All this has, of course, caused many of our leaders and pundits to call for an end to giving Pakistan so much money since it is clearly not buying us much in the way of valuable assistance or advancing our foreign policy interests.

Given the geopolitical reality of Pakistan’s importance to our foreign policy interests in the region, I boldly predict no changes. We will go on — grudgingly perhaps — giving them money.

What would be more encouraging than doing this repeat dog-and-pony-show about our “complex” relationship with Pakistan — an entertaining show, yes, but usually signifying nothing — would be a more in-depth look at how we confuse foreign aid with foreign policy.

I’ve written about this before, regarding our how our aid to Egypt worked in support of dictatorship and also in how even the warm-and-fuzzy concept of “global health” is now being skewed to serve our political interests as part of the Obama Administration’s vague notion of “re-inventing foreign aid.”

Maybe it’s time for a better, less politically self-serving, definition of U.S. foreign aid.

Maybe foreign aid should mostly be about helping poor people in poor countries and leave the geopolitical stuff to other branches of government.

If you want to get a sense of where U.S. foreign aid goes — and how closely allied it is to our political interests as compared to the needs of poor countries — here’s a nifty little video from the folks at AidData:

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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]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.