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Myths about foreign aid

Fabio Lavelanet, co-founder and CEO of Fabrar Rice near the rice fields of farmers in Liberia that the company purchases from. Anna Fawcus/Oxfam America

Whether training local farmers to increase their crop production or helping people rebuild after a natural disaster, most Americans would agree that the aim of US foreign assistance should be to help people help themselves.

It is easy for Americans to be misled by myths that exist about US foreign aid. The biggest is how much our government spends on development assistance. Many Americans believe the US spends more than 26% of its budget on poverty-reducing aid, but the reality is far different: We actually spend less than 1%. As of October 2017, the US government spent $89.44 on development aid per person per year.

With a small investment from the US government, US foreign aid programs can support local leaders as they take action to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty.

An “America first” agenda means that fewer funds have gone into foreign aid. The Office of Management and Budget recently considered taking back more than $3 billion in unspent foreign aid from the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). In August 2018, those rollbacks were dropped in favor of preserving foreign diplomacy.   

Cutting foreign aid costs lives and sends a devastating message to partners around the world that they can’t rely on the United States. Undercutting our cooperation with allies will not make the United States more powerful, or the world more deferential, but it will pull the rug out from under the only humanitarian and collective security system we have.

The US can’t avoid the global challenges of the 21st century by going it alone, turning our backs, or putting up walls. The breadth and scale of the refugee crisis, the threat from climate change, and the fight against poverty demand that we work with other countries and forge solutions that are equal to the challenge. Our elected officials must protect foreign aid.

Illustration: Oxfam America

Here are three things you may not know about US foreign aid:

1. Development aid is not just wasted by corrupt governments.

The US government has checks in place to minimize the risk of fraud and abuse, including specific tools built to manage risk when working within local systems. And importantly, when done right, foreign assistance can actually push local institutions (foreign government agencies, private sector firms, and local nonprofits) to increase their accountability to both their citizens and US taxpayers. It can even directly fight corruption, particularly when the US invests in citizen-led approaches to governance that work within existing systems to tackle this systemic abuse of power.

2. Americans spend more on candy, sporting goods, and jewelry than the US government spends on poverty-reducing foreign assistance.

The US government spends about $89 per American each year on development aid. Compare that to what Americans spend each year: $107 per person on candy, $209 per person on sporting goods, and $212 per person on jewelry.

3. Foreign aid is proven to lift people out of poverty.

Since 1990, the world has seen more than a billion people lifted from extreme poverty—a faster decline than any other time in history. Millions have been saved from preventable diseases such as HIV and malaria, millions of children are able to attend school, millions of families have improved their livelihoods through new farming technologies, access to finance, and more. 

Between 2009 and 2011, USAID supported the school enrollment of 84 million girls and continues to do so with the Let Girls Learn initiative. USAID is also working to address gender-based violence in 40 countries and has trained 75,000 Afghan women to strengthen women’s rights organizations, increase women’s participation in the economy, and increase the number of women in decision-making positionsIn Kenya and Nigeria, USAID has brought Internet access to 600,000 young women.

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