Capstones: Foreign Aid under Fire

By Alan Dowd, 4.5.17

The White House recently announced plans for “dramatic reductions in foreign aid,” floating suggestions that the administration is prepared to cut between 20 percent and 37 percent of the budgets for the State Department and Agency for International Development (USAID). “We are going to propose to reduce foreign aid, and we are going to propose to spend that money here,” Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney said. This is in keeping with President Donald Trump’s view that “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world…From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.”

The president’s “America First” doctrine, in turn, is in keeping with the widely held view among the American people that more than 10 percent of the $4-trillion federal budget goes toward foreign aid. As NPR reports, the average respondent to surveys about foreign aid believes Uncle Sam spends 26 percent of his annual budget on foreign assistance. In fact, Uncle Sam spends less than 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid.

This inward turn—President Obama called it “nation-building here at home,” President Trump calls it “America First”—is not good for America or the world.


It’s a paradox, but for America, a foreign policy shaped and defined purely by self-interest has the effect of undermining America’s interests. Consider the pre-World War II decades, when the American people convinced themselves that the oceans could protect them from the world, only to be shaken out of their fairy tale by the blood and fire of Pearl Harbor.

This is not to suggest that Washington should focus on the interests of other nations at the expense of U.S. interests. What it does suggest is that the liberal international order America began building after World War II is in America’s interests. But it doesn’t run on autopilot or grow by magic. It depends on America and its allies using their resources to enforce international norms of behavior, deter aggressive states, and, yes, offer a helping hand to neighbors in need.

The notion that, once upon a time, America was content to focus solely on self-interest is fiction. Robert Bremner notes in his book American Philanthropy that concerted efforts to distribute foreign aid on the part of Americans date at least to 1820, when Americans sent funds to support Greek independence and care for Greek orphans. When Ireland was ravaged by famine in the 1840s, Bremner writes, “To carry the contributions of Massachusetts alone required two sloops of war, four merchant ships and two steamers.” And Bremner reminds us of this poignant episode: “In the autumn of 1832, when the starving people of the Cape Verde Islands rowed out to a ship hoping to buy food, they were astonished to learn that the vessel had been sent by the United States for the express purpose of relieving their necessities.”

Early in World War I, with Belgium on the brink of starvation, the United States formed the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Individuals and charities accounted for just $52 million of the $1 billion the CRB distributed during the war. After the war, Washington created the American Relief Administration (ARA), which distributed aid to countries in need, including the nascent Soviet Union.

During World War II, Congress shunted $50 million to the Red Cross to assist war refugees. In 1943, the United States helped create the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which spent $4 billion on food, clothing and medicine to ease the suffering of war refugees. At $2.6 billion, America’s contribution accounted for 65 percent of the UNRRA’s generosity.  

After the war, American taxpayers shipped $13 billion to Europe via the Marshall Plan to rescue the war-ravaged continent. Likewise, with Japan facing its worst rice harvest in decades, Gen. Douglas MacArthur supplemented Japanese rations “with 800,000 tons of surplus military food,” as James Dobbins has noted. MacArthur then persuaded Washington to earmark $250 million for food, farm equipment and medicine for occupied Japan—“an amount exceeding the combined budgets of the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Justice and Labor.”

When Stalin tried to blockade West Berlin and starve it into submission, President Harry Truman responded with a 15-month-long airlift that delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies. About 75 percent of those missions were flown by U.S. planes. During that year-plus of brinkmanship, the United States showcased not just its military might, political resolve and economic capacity, but a unique ability to bring all of these to bear in pursuit of its national interests—and a willingness to balance those interests against the most basic needs of its former foes.

In short, the Berlin Airlift was both humanitarian and strategic.


Truman recognized that foreign aid was not just a way to help the world’s neediest, but also an essential tool of foreign policy. “The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want,” he argued. “They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died.”

Truman saw foreign aid as a bridge beyond the siren song of communism, a bridge to a better life and sometimes simply a bridge to survival.

Consider recent foreign aid efforts such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), both conceived during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Launched in 2003, at a time when only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral AIDS drugs, PEPFAR is now supporting life-saving pharmaceutical treatment for nearly 11.5 million people. “PEPFAR prevented nearly 2 million babies from being born with HIV,” a 2016 report concludes. PEPFAR is providing life-saving treatment for nearly 1.1 million children and critical care for 6.2 million orphans and other at-risk children.

PMI is credited with protecting 25 million people from Africa’s deadliest killer—mosquitoes—by distributing bed nets and medicine. Some 6.2 million malaria deaths have been averted, thanks in large part to PMI.

USAID programs have helped build 16,000 schools and train more than 154,000 teachers in Afghanistan, allowing more than 9 million Afghan kids to attend school—up from just 900,000 in 2002. Forty percent of those kids are girls—up from zero percent in 2002.

USAID immunization programs save 3 million lives every year, and USAID development programs have helped 1.3 billion people gain access to safe drinking water.

This is what a great and good—and wealthy—nation does.

At $18 trillion, America’s GDP is enormous. How enormous? America represents 24.5 percent of global GDP. California’s GDP is larger than France’s, Texas’s is larger than Canada’s, New York’s is larger than South Korea’s, Michigan’s is larger than Poland’s.

How enormous? The federal government wastes $124.7 billion on duplication and improper payments—per year. That’s more than the entire GDP of Kuwait or Hungary.

How enormous? In 2014, Americans donated $43.9 billion to developing countries through charitable sources. That’s roughly equal to the GDPs of Jamaica and Haiti—combined.

And we spend $36.4 billion per year on federal foreign aid programs (and falling), while we spend $742.9 billion on Social Security (and rising), $630 billion on Medicare (and rising), $618 billion on defense (falling until this year).

Then there are the outrageous outlays: In 2009-10, 10,000 dead people each received $250 checks from Social Security; Florida spent federal stimulus money to build a tunnel for turtles; Oklahoma used stimulus funds to build a guardrail for a lake that doesn’t exist; a Georgia Tech professor used stimulus cash to study “improvised music”; California researchers used stimulus funds to study ants in Africa; some federal agencies used stimulus funds to hire PR firms to promote the stimulus.

The outrageous outlays didn’t end when stimulus money ran out: A recent report issued by Sen. James Lankford reveals that the government spent $3.1 billion to pay federal workers placed on administrative leave for misconduct, $1.3 billion on medically unnecessary health claims, $263 million to subsidize commercial air travel, $250 million to train a force of 60—that’s sixty—Syrian rebels. The tally of waste goes on and on.

In short, foreign aid is not the cause of our fiscal challenges. Nor, by the way, is it purely charity. As described above, foreign aid provides intangible and tangible benefits to America—a textbook example of enlightened self-interest.

Like insurance payments that serve as a hedge against worst-case scenarios, foreign aid is a down payment on peace and stability. But don’t take my word for it. President Dwight Eisenhower saw foreign assistance as “an investment in our present safety, in our future strength and growth, and in the growth of freedom throughout the world.”

Alan Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.