The top myths about US foreign aid

Extreme poverty is a persistent and demanding global challenge. More than 2.5 billion people are struggling to survive on less than $2 per day. Global poverty affects all of us, from the impacts it has on our national security or economic interests here in the United States, to how we follow through on our moral beliefs and values. That’s why our government gives foreign aid to many countries and groups to fight terrorism, respond to disasters and conflicts, support local efforts to build up economies or ensure basic services like vaccines and clean water are delivered.

As important as these programs are, Americans have some serious misconceptions about the nature of U.S. foreign aid, how much we spend and where it goes. Here are the top five misconceptions about our foreign aid:

Myth: 25-30 percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid.

The entire international affairs budget – which includes diplomacy and aid – is less than 2 percent of the federal budget. Poverty-focused development assistance is about half of that – for a grand total of 0.7 percent of the U.S. federal budget in Fiscal Year 2014. Americans vastly overestimate how much the U.S. spends on aid. Surveys report that, on average, Americans believe the U.S. spends as much as 30 percent of the federal bud­get on foreign aid, more than Social Security or Medicare.

This misperception is at the root of why foreign aid is sometimes offered up as a way to reduce the deficit or get our budget in order. In fact, cutting foreign aid would have virtually no effect on reducing the nation’s debt. It would, however, threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of people worldwide.

Myth: Providing aid lets governments off the hook for taking care of their citizens.

The most effective aid is provided in ways that encourage country governments to better meet the needs of their people. In Rwanda, for example, as international donors gave direct support to the government, the government increased its spend­ing in health, while simultaneously decreasing defense spending.

Foreign aid can empower citizens to hold their governments accountable. People like Alexis Nkurunziza in Rwanda, who used USAID funding to develop a citizens’ guide to the budget that is helping educate Rwandans about the purpose of the national budget and how they can get involved in developing and monitoring it at local levels. Shedding light on the budget process means less waste and corruption and more effective governing. It builds active citizens whose voices are heard. Aid given the right way doesn’t lead to freeriding – it puts governments on notice that their citizens are watching.

Myth: People in poor countries need us to save them.

Oxfam believes that aid needs to be delivered in a way that allows people – particularly women – to best use our aid to solve the problems they identify with the solutions they need in their community. People in the developing world know how to overcome poverty, and they want to overcome these obstacles. They need a partner to help them overcome it, not a foreign government to do it for them. 

More aid should be provided directly to foreign governments and local civil society organizations if we hope to see long-term sustainable results. USAID is strengthening efforts to invest directly in partner governments and local organizations through a new initiative called USAID Forward. It supports citizens to take actions themselves to shape better outcomes, and strengthen institutions to deliver the results local people demand. Working with and through local entities is critical to fight corruption and defend human rights. Promoting local government officials and activists to lead their communities to end poverty will have the greatest long-term impact.

Myth: Foreign aid doesn’t benefit Americans.

Foreign aid is one of the smartest investments we make. It is a miniscule portion of our federal budget and yet it saves millions of lives and supports efforts to reduce poverty and injustice that fuel social tensions. This funding helps stabilize communities and countries around the globe, decreasing security risks for all Americans. Aid also helps the US achieve our goals abroad at a lower cost to taxpayers than using the military. Promoting peace and prosperity now means a new generation grows up without the trauma of war and crushing poverty that leads to unrest. Finally, foreign aid promotes our values. Providing aid in the right way can advance human rights and democracy. It also demonstrates our goodwill and does more to enhance the credibility and image of the U.S. in the minds of foreign citizens than almost anything else we can do.

Forget about the myths of foreign aid – it’s becoming more effective and transparent. Oxfam believes that poverty is not inevitable, but solvable. Poverty is not natural, it is man-made, and can therefore be fixed by us. US foreign aid is a significant investment that, done properly, can help people overcome poverty and injustice. If that continues, empowered local citizens and effective governments will no longer need US government investment. This is the ultimate goal of foreign aid: Working itself out of a job.  Foreign aid is not a solution to poverty. People are the solution.

Offenheiser is the president of Oxfam America and has more than three decades of experience in international development. Oxfam America does not receive money from the U.S. government. Oxfam has just released its third edition of Foreign aid 101: A quick and easy guide to understanding US foreign aid.