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U.S. Aid by the Numbers

The United States is a generous contributor of foreign assistance, but too much goes toward reacting to problems instead of dealing with the factors that create them.

A U.S. marine packages USAID supplies bound for cyclone-devastated Myanmar on May 14, 2008. The United States is the most generous country when it comes to aid, but suffers from short-term reactionary giving. (AP/Wally Santana)
A U.S. marine packages USAID supplies bound for cyclone-devastated Myanmar on May 14, 2008. The United States is the most generous country when it comes to aid, but suffers from short-term reactionary giving. (AP/Wally Santana)

The United States spends billions every year on foreign assistance, making it the largest global provider of aid. Its efforts have undoubtedly saved lives, but when the numbers are examined, trends emerge: Aid to countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan is largely spent on military activities rather than education and development, and when it comes to food aid, the money would be better spent on helping poor countries become more self-sufficient rather than only sending them money when there are famines, drought, and persistent conditions of poverty.

There are two congressional hearings today on U.S. foreign aid. They will look at how to use aid to achieve policy goals—particularly fighting terrorism—and how to reform the bureaucracy of foreign assistance. This by-the-numbers look at our current aid strategy suggests that focusing on development and promoting agricultural production and literacy would actually be a better strategy for fighting terrorism and changing the underlying conditions that drive it. Right now, we are spending lots of money, with little to show for it.

U.S. emergency assistance spending is high and increasing.

$114 million: U.S. emergency and humanitarian assistance in 2000.

$1.7 billion: U.S. emergency and humanitarian assistance in 2006.

This enormous increase is due to several factors, including a shift in focus to more emergency assistance as opposed to prevention programs, aid to failed states such as Sudan, and recurring famine in regions such as East Africa. By focusing on military assistance tied to short-term U.S. interests, we are ignoring the long-term investments in economic development and building civil society that can lead to the growth of democracy—and which would help fight terrorism. An ally in the war on terror, Pakistan could benefit from aid in these areas instead of help for military objectives, which is where the bulk of our aid goes now.

We’ve got food aid backwards

$2 billion: The amount the United States spent per year on food aid programs between 2002 and 2006.

1 in 5: Number of individuals that food aid actually reaches at best.

The United States is spending billions of dollars on emergency food aid programs that only reach a fraction of the population, while spending significantly less on preventing food insecurity through agriculture and other programs.

$470 million: The amount the United States invested in agricultural development per year between 2002 and 2006.

2 percent: The percentage of development assistance allocated for the agricultural sector in the current budget for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

86 percent: The percentage of the 3 billion people living in rural areas across the globe who make their living on agriculture.

Over $1 billion: Amount the United States provided each year in food aid to Africa between 2003 and 2007.

Less than $200 million: Amount the United States has consistently invested annually on agricultural development in Africa over the last 15 years.

30 percent: The percentage of people in sub-Saharan African who suffer from undernourishment.

There are steps the United States could take to stop this cycle of throwing money at problems instead of trying to fix the conditions that create them. It could start by considering development and crisis prevention in foreign policy formulation and aid policies. In terms of agricultural development, efforts should be tailored to reaching out to rural women in developing countries who produce the majority of staple crops, as well as promoting the growth of open, competitive markets and building more effective organizations to oversee and serve the agricultural sector. A cabinet-level development agency and a directorate in the White House mandated to focus on and coordinate U.S. foreign assistance are two ways to ensure development is factored into policy.

Taking a longer view and thinking about how our aid can help prevent and mitigate crises over time as well as meet our immediate policy goals would be a more balanced approach that would contribute to better conditions in the countries we want to help as well as improve our national security. And when the cost of dealing with conflicts that erupt in desperate countries is taken into account—including large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons—a strategy that targets the roots of conflicts makes much more sense.

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