Impeachment shows the ethical difficulties of foreign assistance

Impeachment shows the ethical difficulties of foreign assistance
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While the impeachment of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE captivates media attention, it is a good time to contemplate the underlying policy issue of foreign aid that was intermingled with the proceedings. The allocation of foreign aid has always been ethically dubious. This is an opportunity to look at how countries and international organizations disburse foreign aid, as most Americans have never considered just how the United States, the largest bilateral foreign aid donor, allocates its funds across recipients or what factors drive decisions to give assistance to one country over another.

Many people probably believe that foreign aid, particularly humanitarian assistance, is largely driven by recipient need. But this has never actually been true. There is very little evidence that recipient need is the primary driver of foreign aid for the United States and numerous other countries, despite the benevolent connotation of the term foreign aid. Indeed, the best evidence suggests that the strongest predictors of foreign aid are political and strategic and interests of donor countries and not global altruism. That is true for the United States and the rest of the world.

In a highly cited study, the economists Alberto Alesina and David Dollar explore patterns with the allocation of foreign aid. They concluded, “The pattern of aid giving is dictated by political and strategic considerations. An inefficient, economically closed, mismanaged nondemocratic former colony politically friendly to the former colonizer receives more foreign aid than another country with similar levels of poverty, which is a superior policy stance but without a past as a colony.” Several other studies have also found that donor interests seem to better explain the allocation of foreign aid as compared to recipient need. For the United States, this appears to be particularly true of net foreign aid and even of food aid.


It may come as an unwelcome surprise to many Americans that the same is also true for humanitarian aid, an important subcomponent of overall foreign aid. Although the principles of humanitarian action dictate that both donors and agencies respond to crises in proportion to the level of need, scholars and international organizations have long noted that the provision of humanitarian assistance shows remarkable variation that is not easily explained by differences in the level of need. The conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan have received the vast majority of international humanitarian aid over the last two decades, while equally destructive conflicts in Somalia, East Timor, and Sierra Leone have gone relatively neglected by donors and humanitarian aid organizations alike.

My own research of the international humanitarian aid disbursements to states affected by conflicts from 1969 to 2009 confirms that despite the principled commitment to assist people in need equally, wherever they are, high levels of humanitarian aid appear to be disbursed because of strategic and political factors even after controlling for level of need.

Aid conditionality, a very common practice in which a donor country may attempt to induce a recipient to pursue certain interests or adopt donor policies, is ubiquitous if not universally employed by donor nations when disbursing bilateral aid flows. International organizations also utilize aid conditionality when disbursing multilateral assistance. Aid with strings is often controversial, though few instances toe the line between national interest and personal interest as closely as the ones placed on Ukraine.

A study analyzed the influence of American aid on voting patterns in the United Nations General Assembly from 1973 to 2002. It concluded that American aid “buys voting compliance” in the United Nations General Assembly. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, highlights the dilemma of aid conditionality in giving. It said, “The provision of such assistance is more often than not conditional since even unconditional assistance almost always carries some explicit preconditions and implicit conditions. These conditions form contractual terms of such financial assistance which bind the recipient to expected actions or even results as a quid pro quo for receiving such assistance.”

The point is not to vindicate the president by chronicling how foreign aid has been used for political and strategic aims, nor is the point to make a judgment on the influence that the political and strategic interests of the donors should play in its provision. There may be even a strong case that federal spending on foreign aid should be targeted to advance important national interests, particularly in light of often desperate domestic needs toward which government funds may have been spent. The point is to call more attention to the fact that foreign aid, even humanitarian assistance, has always been treated as a form of soft power rather than simply as a charitable act. For this reason, the exact calculus behind any strategy of foreign aid should be the subject of more popular debate and oversight.

Neil Narang is a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.