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Oxfam’s primer on foreign aid glosses over the military part

The anti-poverty organization Oxfam does a pretty good job of translating the fuzzy and sometimes absurd lingo used by the aid and development community.

What they don’t quite do is call baloney on the fact that much of our foreign aid is actually military aid. More on that in a bit.

Most people think the primary goal of aid and development is, or should be, to reduce poverty and inequity worldwide. Oxfam explores how the U.S. contributes to this noble goal in their third edition of Foreign Aid 101, which you can read about at this link or by downloading the report. The gist of the report is that foreign aid is an incredibly good buy and we could spend a lot more on aid and development.

A quick summary:

1. We spend hardly anything on foreign aid, less than a penny on the dollar within the US government’s budget – less than one percent. Says Oxfam: The reality is that just 0.7 percent of the US federal budget is devoted to poverty-focused foreign assistance, or $23.4 billion in FY2014.

2. In case you missed the point here, Oxfam makes it again: Americans spend more on candy, lawn care, and soft drinks than the US government spends on poverty-reducing foreign assistance. Taxpayers are asked to spend about $80 per person per year on fighting poverty and inequity overseas. We spend, on average, $204 per year on soft drinks (which makes us fat and gives us diabetes).

3. Oxfam also contends that the problem of corrupt foreign governments wasting aid is over-stated. Oxfam notes that about 85 percent goes through US-based government contractors, humanitarian organizations and non-government organizations. Done right, foreign assistance can actually push governments to increase accountability.

It’s a good and informative report that gives you a historical overview of U.S. aid and development, dispels myths (such as the one about how extraordinarily generous we are) and the benefits to Americans that come from doing aid and development. What Oxfam glosses over in its effort to make the case for aid is that our government counts military aid – and some other forms of economic assistance that have little to do with fighting fighting poverty and inequity – as ‘aid.’

This confused categorization is why Time magazine can report that the top recipients of US foreign aid are Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.  Aid in this case is usually weaponry, troops and other forms of military assistance.


So maybe there’s one problem with how we do aid, or at least define it – and may help explain why so many contend aid isn’t working. We’re spending most of it on guns rather than butter.

Speaking of aid to Afghanistan, you might want to read this article from Al Jazeera America exploring how billions of our ‘aid dollars’ there went into a black hole of mismanagement, corruption and poorly conceived development projects. Here’s the opening tagline for AJ’s investigative report:

More than $100 billion in U.S. taxpayer money and counting: how billions of dollars for Afghan reconstruction were mismanaged and how billions more will flow, even after U.S. troops are gone....


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.