During my 20-plus years in Africa as a U.S. diplomat, I spoke to many school groups about America’s foreign policy, and invariably someone would ask critically why America doesn’t give more aid (to the country where I was speaking). I quickly learned to turn the question around and ask the group: the very first winter after colonists arrived in New England from Europe (1620-21) there was not enough food — who do you think came to the Americans’ aid? Their answers included: England as the colonial power; some other European country; or an NGO (non-governmental organization like the Red Cross). They were startled when I told them, “no one — the colonists were on their own and about half (45 out of 102) died during that winter, since there was no such thing as international assistance.” I would then point out that even though no one was there to help America in its early days of suffering, America has been very willing to help the rest of the world in times of need with massive amounts of aid.
Their ignorance and misperception are understandable on several counts. In most of the developing world — especially sub-Saharan Africa — international relief and assistance agencies representing OECD (wealthy) countries and international NGOs are ever present and have been for decades. In many such capitals and out in the countryside it seems as if every other vehicle is a high-priced SUV belonging to some relief agency or other, and high end hotels are full of foreign experts or advisers there to work on development projects or to evaluate the effectiveness of a donor country’s or agency’s assistance efforts. And, most developing country populations are young — under 20 — for them it’s “normal” that their countries receive foreign aid.
We’re at the point where not only do a number of recipient countries count foreign assistance as a recurring and expected part of their budgets, but for several, aid is the major part of the budget. Few people in recipient or donor nations realize that the concept of one country helping another “develop” is relatively new. The post-World War II Marshall Plan — whereby America funded Europe’s reconstruction — is often cited as the world’s first large-scale international development project. Such aid became more established and formalized during the Cold War as a U.S. foreign policy tool to help tilt the newly independent states (mostly in Africa) toward the West and away from Soviet and Chinese Communism.
My young African audiences’ initial point, that the U.S. doesn’t give enough, is a theme oft cited by a wide range of other critics including recipient governments, other developed countries, numerous academicians and even Nobel prize-winning economists. Even my European diplomatic colleagues would try and give me a hard time by noting that while America has indeed been the single largest global aid contributor since World War II, our assistance as a percentage of our GDP is less than that of other donor countries. Worldwide, total development aid in 2016 was $142 billion of which the U.S. gave about $38 billion. This represents about 0.20 percent of our GDP, and all types of our foreign assistance — including economic and security — is consistently under 1 percent of the budget. (Although most Americans believe it is considerably higher — 10-20 percent). My retort to them was undiplomatic — I pointed out that if their nations had not colonized Africa, creating made up countries with artificial borders which were almost designed to fail, these nations would likely not have needed foreign assistance to begin with. And as far as the amount of assistance goes, America’s international generosity goes beyond official government development assistance since the giving of our charities, foundations, churches and individuals meet or exceed our government’s totals.
We as a people are extraordinarily generous, but at the same time we abhor waste, inefficiency and corruption, and our international aid structure reflects this bifurcation. We are glad to help when there is a bona fide humanitarian emergency, but we loath the idea of our assistance being wasted. In 1984 when the horrendous Ethiopian famine came to light, President Reagan was counseled by some of his advisers to not send help, since the then-Marxist Ethiopian leaders were vociferously anti-American. Reagan’s rejected their advice and said: “A starving child knows no politics.” That has been our national posture on humanitarian emergencies — we are there first, with the most. (And the highly efficient farmers and ranchers of Texas are part of the reason we can be!) I’ve been in situations overseas when American grain is already arriving while other donors are still discussing how to respond.
Conversely the development side of international aid has been much less successful. Despite the massive sums given, recipient countries never seem to move from “developing” to “developed” and the long years of continuous aid has created significant “development dependency.” For example, the U.N.’s 2017 LDC (Least Developed Countries) lists 48 nations of which 21 were on the original list in 1971. Analysts debate why this is, but I have my own list of major reasons based on my experience. To wit: Development theories keep changing — e.g., from focusing on sectors (such as education or health) to funding major projects (e.g., Power Africa). Different donors have different priorities, and recipient nations have little say beyond accepting or rejecting the assistance — and few ever say “no!”
“Success” is defined only quantitatively, such as how many polio injections were given or how many students graduated from high school — rather than by a qualitative holistic analysis of whether the country is moving forward. But the two biggest impediments, in my view: On the recipient side, some governments are so corrupt, ineffective or uncaring that they simply will never provide an environment which will allow their nations to become “developed” — immaterial of how much money is poured in. And until there is a change, such countries will not attract private investment, which is the real agent for development. On the donor side, I know of no international development agency which makes it a formal strategic priority to put itself out of business within a certain number of years — yet that should be the goal of international development, to end the need for such organizations.
Tibor Nagy is the former vice provost for international affairs at Texas Tech and served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1999 to 2002 and to Guinea from 1996 to 1999.