Foreign assistance should be directed where the need and impact are greatest

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In Washington, many are talking about changing the size and scope of the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), our government’s main administrator of foreign assistance.

We welcome these discussions as long as any redesign of American international development and humanitarian assistance builds on the successes of the last three decades: for starters, U.S. foreign assistance has been instrumental in lifting more than 1 billion people out of extreme poverty since 1990.  

Those of us who work in this field have a pretty good idea about what’s effective. We have learned from our mistakes and built on our successes. Based on that, more than 170 organizations signed the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s (MFAN) Guiding Principles for Effective U.S. Assistance. One key point: the primary focus of foreign assistance should be where need is greatest or where it can have the most impact.

{mosads}Catholic Relief Services has witnessed the significant impact that needs-based interventions can have across the globe through our service to more than 120 million people in 2016 alone. We are privileged to connect American generosity, especially by supporters who wish to live out their solidarity with the poor and marginalized overseas, with local partners around the world.


For example, CRS’ Youthbuild program in El Salvador helped 80 percent of the at-risk youth in its pilot program to either find work or return to school. For less than $1,000 per youth, this program helped to reduce the likelihood that these youth would be swept into the gangs that control their neighborhoods. 

It also helped them to become part of the solutions to the challenges facing their neighborhoods. We have since scaled up this program with significant funding from the Government of El Salvador. When we aim programs at areas where significant needs and opportunity exist, we are more likely to succeed. We are also more likely to garner the cooperation of local stakeholders, including local governments. And local ownership is critical for program sustainability.

Focusing aid in areas of greatest need typically yields the most impactful results. Nutrition interventions demonstrate this well: children who get the right nutrition early on are ten times more likely to overcome deadly childhood diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia, and are more likely to achieve higher levels of education. Needs-based interventions are often the ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure.

Indeed, long-term development is a critical tool to reduce the likelihood that communities will suffer humanitarian crises later — which are more expensive. As USAID recently noted, “In one community in Malawi, responding to urgent, life-saving needs cost $390 per household over nine months during drought in 2016.  By contrast, in another community in Malawi it only cost $72.50 per year to help a household feed itself with interventions like small-scale irrigation, extension, and access to improved inputs and markets.” This second community didn’t need food assistance during the drought in 2016. Focusing international assistance on need is, in and of itself, a means of maximizing the efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

It follows that international assistance programs should be measured based on their development impact; just as diplomatic initiatives should be measured by their diplomatic impact. Too often Washington is tempted to measure the impact of aid primarily by the national security or economic dividends they yield. While these dividends are very real, they risk distorting the rationale for the work. And if we distort the goals of international assistance, then we might distort the programs and ultimately make them less effective.

Furthermore, focusing on political or national security aims, rather than development results, can backfire. Today’s unimportant disasters are tomorrow’s strategic national security crises. The current violence in the Sahel further underscores this point.

For many of us, including faith-based organizations like CRS, we provide assistance because we believe it is the right thing to do. Fortunately for all of us, saving lives and protecting human security overseas results in greater human security at home as well.

Bill O’Keefe is vice president for Government Relations and Advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, the international relief and development agency of the U.S Catholic Church. He is also an executive committee member of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN).

Tags Aid Bill O'Keefe Catholic Relief Services Extreme poverty human security International development United States Agency for International Development

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