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When it comes to foreign aid, the United States does some things very well. We lead the world in the provision of humanitarian assistance offer generous aid packages to countries emerging from war and oppression, and have taken the lead on a number of critical issues, including the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Yet despite 60 years of experience—beginning with the $13 billion Marshall Plan following World War II—the United States today does not have a long-term strategy for how we allocate foreign assistance. As a result, U.S. foreign assistance is too rarely geared toward preventing or getting out ahead of crises, be they civil conflict, famine, or failing states. Too much of our foreign assistance and the foreign policy that drives decisions about the allocation of foreign aid is reactive rather than proactive. Consequently, our aid policies and programs are short term, which means that all too often we don’t achieve lasting, long-term results.
There are three kinds of situations that contribute to Washington’s tendency to deploy foreign assistance as a short-term tool rather than as a long-term investment. The first is when crisis-driven geopolitical interests demand that we provide high levels of aid, as in, for example, Afghanistan or Pakistan today. The second includes man-made and natural disasters, as happened in Liberia during repeated civil wars over the last 20 years, or in East Africa, where recurrent famine over the past 50 years has repeatedly triggered our humanitarian instincts. The third includes chronic cases of failed states, such as Sudan, where the United States has national interests (political stability in a country that straddles the Middle East and Africa) but where humanitarian aid and peacekeeping missions are offered up as a palliative for the absence of a concerted, sustained, and proactive foreign policy.
In all of these situations, development assistance that might ameliorate the underlying conditions of poverty and instability is trumped by humanitarian or military assistance. And in each of these cases, the pattern of aid flows is consistent—aid spikes in reaction to crises, but far less is invested to prevent crises before they occur or to consolidate progress when crises subside. Huge amounts of aid are allocated to support strategic interests, but the spigot is turned off once those immediate interests diminish.
Providing billions of dollars in support of relief operations in Sudan or to shore up a strategic but authoritarian ally in Pakistan are not policies that can succeed on their own. In fact, these investments can go to waste if they are not driven by long-term development objectives. A glance at the history of U.S. foreign aid spending illustrates a pattern: aid levels increase when crises arise, but flat-line immediately thereafter, only to rise again when they recur. The cost of this pattern of reaction is enormous—in taxpayer dollars, in stability, and in very human terms.
To understand these costs of reaction this paper first takes a by-the-numbers look at the costs to the American taxpayer of our inability to craft long-term, sustainable policies for countries in civil war, amid famine, or saddled with chronically failing governments. We then examine five countries that exemplify one or more of these problems—Pakistan, Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan and Ethiopia—to explore how the off-and-on pattern of aid delivery undercuts our aims and the long-term sustainable security needs of these countries. We then close each of these case studies, and the report itself, with a look at alternative ways the United States could approach its foreign aid spending with an eye on long-term, sustainable security for us and for our foreign aid recipients. As we will demonstrate, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
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