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Making foreign aid work

Effective assistance to end poverty and injustice must be designed by the people who need it most.

Foreign aid has the power to change lives. Since 1990, the world has seen more than a billion people lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Hundreds of millions have been saved from preventable diseases, tens of millions of children are in school, and millions of families have improved their economic situation.

US international assistance played a huge role in this progress. But far too much foreign aid still supports projects that only serve the interests of wealthy donor governments or originate thousands of miles away from communities that have a better understanding of how those resources should be spent.

Oxfam’s mission is to fight inequality to end poverty and injustice. That’s why we believe local organizations and leaders as close as possible—geographically and culturally—to communities in need should drive how US aid is invested to create the conditions that help them escape poverty for good. When foreign aid supports local solutions to complex problems, it helps more people build critical skills to help themselves—and creates a more equal world.

Why is foreign aid important?

Foreign aid includes many types of international assistance. The entire US international affairs budget—which includes money for diplomacy and development—is roughly 1 percent of the federal budget. Poverty-focused development aid is half of that: 0.5 percent of the US federal budget in fiscal year 2019.

Effective poverty-focused aid—or government aid to support people who are poor—specifically tackles the systems and structures that keep people poor. It builds human capital through health care and schooling, which are essential ingredients for poverty reduction. For example, this aid helps increase corn farmers’ yields in Kenya, prevents famine in Ethiopia, and improves girls’ access to primary school in Bangladesh. It is also helping low-income countries fight COVID-19.

But far too often, politicians try to cut foreign aid even though doing so has virtually no effect on reducing the US national debt. What it does do is threaten the lives of millions of people worldwide and put our shared security at risk.

What is Oxfam doing to make foreign aid work better?

From helping local farmers increase their crop production, to supporting citizens and governments rebuild after a natural disaster, foreign assistance must be led and designed by the people who need it most. Foreign aid reform has the power to increase the impact of international assistance and make durable gains in the fight to end poverty and injustice.

Here’s what Oxfam America is doing to make US foreign aid a better tool for development and emergency relief for people in low-income countries.

Arpona, 35, carries bags of food and supplies distributed by Oxfam partner Shushilan for her family after Cyclone Amphan struck western coastal areas of Bangladesh in May 2020. “If we had not received this aid, we would have starved.”
Arpona, 35, carries bags of food and supplies distributed by Oxfam partner Shushilan for her family after Cyclone Amphan struck western coastal areas of Bangladesh in May 2020. “If we had not received this aid, we would have starved.” Photo: Fabeha Monir / Oxfam

We make foreign aid accountable to the people who need it most

Oxfam works with partners and allies to make sure that US foreign aid supports priorities and plans decided on by the people it is intended to help. When aid supports local people and institutions, it has a longer-lasting impact, it’s more likely to address key problems facing low-income people, and it’s less likely to fuel corruption. Plus, localizing aid is the right thing to do!

From launching women’s and men’s groups to coaching police on how to manage cases of sexual and gender-based violence, Oxfam partners like AWYAD in Uganda are working with women in refugee settlements to advance women’s rights and protection.
From launching women’s and men’s groups to coaching police on how to manage cases of sexual and gender-based violence, Oxfam partners like AWYAD in Uganda are working with women in refugee settlements to advance women’s rights and protection. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

We make foreign aid work for women and girls

Worldwide, women and girls face unequal treatment when it comes to education, health care, job opportunities, pay rates, and the right to own land and other assets. But when women and girls have the same opportunities and access to resources as men and boys, society as a whole benefits. Aid can help advance gender equality, yet less than 40 percent of the aid from the richest countries targets equal rights for women. Oxfam is working to make gender equality a top priority of US assistance.

Schoolchildren in Tajikistan use a new handwashing station constructed by Oxfam at their school.
Schoolchildren in Tajikistan use a new handwashing station constructed by Oxfam at their school. Photo: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam

We make foreign aid a tool for tax justice to help fund critical public investments

Aid isn’t an open-ended proposition, and in the long run, countries will finance their development using their own resources. Along the way, aid can help strengthen the effectiveness of tax collection. Tax revenues pay for public investments in health, education, and social safety net programs that are essential to fight inequality and end poverty. Aid is also important for supporting tax justice, with businesses and wealthy people paying their fair share. Oxfam is a member of the Addis Tax Initiative, a global body aimed at creating fair and effective tax systems.

The women’s social architecture project in Bangladesh aims to put Rohingya refugee women at the center of the design process to help create facilities and spaces that meet the needs of women and girls.
The women’s social architecture project in Bangladesh aims to put Rohingya refugee women at the center of the design process to help create facilities and spaces that meet the needs of women and girls. Photo: Salahuddin Ahmed

We help move foreign aid away from colonial thinking

Poverty results from centuries of marginalization of certain groups—particularly indigenous peoples, racial and ethnic minorities, and women. Virtually all low-income countries were once colonies, from which colonizers extracted raw materials, agricultural products, and sometimes human beings. Oxfam is working to make sure that aid programs move away from leftover colonial thinking, such as the idea that people from rich countries know what’s best for people living in poverty. In fact, people in poverty themselves have the best understanding of what will work and have lasting results in their contexts.

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