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Goals of Foreign Assistance

U.S. foreign assistance has three main purposes: humanitarian, political, and development.

Humanitarian assistance responds to natural and man-made disasters (the Indian Ocean tsunami, for example) and ongoing crises such as the situation in Darfur.

U.S. national security interests drive much of the political aid (for example, counter-narcotics in Latin America, peace in the Middle East, the war on terror, military training). Development assistance programs, designed to reduce poverty and encourage economic growth in low-income countries, include programs for agriculture, health, family planning, education, the environment, and democracy and governance.

The development component of U.S. foreign assistance has been largely effective, particularly where there has been a long-term commitment of resources and a partnering relationship with the host government.

South Korea and Taiwan, formerly recipients of large amounts of U.S. development assistance, are now economic powerhouses and partners in global security. India, another recipient of U.S. development assistance, has gone from chronic food deficits in the 1960s to food exports and sustained economic growth in recent decades.

U.S. development assistance was instrumental in the eradication of smallpox. Through PEPFAR—the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—the United States has placed more than 2 million people on lifesaving anti-retroviral medication.

Despite these and other successes, U.S. development assistance has lacked a coherent strategy. Put simply, the overarching goals of U.S. development assistance are unclear. While United Nations agencies, multilateral agencies like the World Bank, and donor countries such as the United Kingdom have adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the framework for their assistance, the United States has been reluctant to do so.

Yet the MDGs are widely understood and accepted targets of human development—for example, reducing the number of people in poverty, reducing mortality rates for children under 5, increasing girls’ enrollment in school—and could serve as an unambiguous indicator of aid effectiveness.

By the same standard, non-emergency foreign assistance given primarily for political reasons should have its own measures of effectiveness. Have the billions of dollars in aid given to Egypt since the Camp David accords been effective? Maybe not by developmental standards. But absolutely if measured by the absence of war between Egypt and Israel.

Much of the criticism of foreign assistance as ineffective and wasteful is because political and development goals are intermixed. Such confusion erodes public support for spending tax dollars on international development.

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