You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 17: US Foreign Aid Deconstructed

US Foreign Aid Deconstructed

How effective is US foreign assistance, and why is it offered in the first place? In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Jessica Trisko Darden discusses foreign aid and how it can be more thoughtfully implemented.

Professor Trisko Darden provides background on how US foreign aid got started in the years after World War II (1:23) and explains why the US became one of the largest providers of assistance (3:28). She discusses whether exporting American values plays a role in US foreign aid (4:32), and how the United States balances serving populations at home and abroad (5:54).

Based on research she conducted for her book Aiding and Abetting: US Foreign Assistance and State Violence, Professor Trisko Darden gives us a glimpse into both the positive and negative effects of US foreign aid (8:59). She also expands on how the United States should strategize to provide aid (12:17), reveals how US foreign assistance impacted her mother’s family in the Philippines (15:10), and shares how foreign aid is viewed in the age of social media (16:52).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Trisko Darden tells us the five major global issues with which foreign assistance can play a role (7:09).

0:00      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters.

0:15      KS: Foreign aid, or foreign assistance, is essentially a voluntary transfer of resources from one country to another. As we've discussed on Big World before, there are a variety of opinions about how effective foreign aid is for the recipients and a variety of reasons why governments offer foreign assistance in the first place. And when budgets are created, foreign aid is typically one of the first items up for cutting.

0:38      KS: Today, we're talking about US foreign aid. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Jessica Trisko Darden. Jessica is a professor here at the School of International Service. She's also a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a non-resident fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism. Her latest book is Aiding and Abetting: U.S. Foreign Assistance and State Violence.

1:00      KS: Jessica, thanks for joining Big World.

1:02      Jessica Trisko Darden: Thanks for having me.

1:04      KS: Jessica, the United States has been known, over the past 60 years or so, for taking the lead in providing foreign aid, but this wasn't always the case. The US didn't have an official foreign aid program until after World War II.

1:18      KS: Help us understand what prompted the US to start aiding countries in this way.

1:23      JTD: I think that there are lots of ways that we can think about what it means to have foreign assistance as a program. So in many ways, the United States interventions in Haiti and the Philippines could be seen as part of a US effort to uplift those nations. But the actual foreign aid program, as we talk about it today, really began with the Marshall Plan for Europe that was enacted in 1948 and was designed to rebuild Europe in the aftermath of World War II and to prevent the spread of communism throughout the region.

1:55      JTD: But in the same speech in which Truman announced the Marshall Plan, his 1949 inaugural address, he also identified another program, which has come to be known as the Point Four plan. And this, in contrast to the Marshall Plan, really emphasized long-term aid to nations that had never industrialized or been connected to the global economy. Under the Point Four plan, the United States established programs for countries, including first, Iran, followed by Libya, Brazil, Indonesia, El Salvador, and others under what became the 1950 Act for International Development.

2:31      JTD: But it's not until 1961, that Congress passes the Foreign Assistance Act, which is the foundation of current foreign assistance policy. That act defines US foreign assistance as any tangible or intangible item provided by the United States government to a foreign country or international organization. So, exactly as you defined, a resource transfer from one country to another. But that can look very different—it includes training, service, technical advices, items, agricultural commodity, and hard cash. It's a much more expansive definition than most people think of.

3:09      KS: So it's one thing to provide aid to other countries. It's one thing to say, "We will do this and we pass an act, and now we're going to start providing age developing countries." It's quite another thing to become one of the top-five donor countries in the world.

3:23      KS: Why did the US become one of the largest providers of assistance?

3:28      JTD: Following World War II, the United States was really the only country in an economic position to do so. With the exception of the Pearl Harbor attack, World War II was something that happened abroad with little direct impact on the US homeland. But I also think that there are some deeper causes here, including a kind of ingrained ethos of service for the greater good or the common good. That's very much a part of American political and social culture.

3:53      JTD: I think it's also certainly the case that, in the context of the Cold War, the United States needed to demonstrate the superiority of its democratic capitalist system in the face of communist takeovers in Europe and Asia, and foreign assistance became one mode for demonstrating the success of the American model.

4:12      KS: Is there a part of this that's also about exporting American values? We talk about soft power. For example, was there a religious element to this, of this kind of missionary zeal of taking American values and putting them in parts of the world that didn't have those types of governments, or systems, or cultures? What was going on with that?

4:32      JTD: I think it can be seen a variety of ways, and so one is certainly this sense of charity, whether that's a kind of religiously-motivated charity or a broader moral obligation. That's certainly one dynamic that we've seen from Truman through Kennedy and even to the present day with a lot of the rhetoric surrounding foreign aid. I think there's also a sense of, kind of, civilizational superiority. If we look at some of the earlier foreign aid speeches, US presidents are talking about lifting people out of poverty, yes. But also talking about "those individuals over there living in mud huts, we need to reach those people and integrate them into the civilized world."

5:17      KS: Has some of that rhetoric, it's changed over time, but has it also become, I think, somewhat hypocritical in light of the fact that we have people in this country....This comes up a lot: "Why are we spending all this money on people over there? People over here are starving." But it seems like there is an element of truth to the idea that if they were saying, "those people over there in mud huts at the same time that we have homeless people here in America who need help," that there is kind of a disconnect.

5:44      KS: How does current policy reconcile the state of economic development and underserved people in this country with foreign assistance?

5:54      JTD: Yeah, so I think you identify something that has really been a long-standing tension in US foreign assistance policy: the need to balance serving populations here at home and serving populations abroad. There are two ways that we tend to reconcile this.

6:08      JTD: One is to associate foreign assistance very strongly with national security priorities, right? So we're not just uplifting other people and addressing poverty abroad because it's a morally right and just thing to do. Even though that is one line of argumentation, we're also doing it because it serves American interests.

6:27      JTD: On the other hand, I think that there is also a strong emphasis, currently, on using foreign assistance to kind of spur economic growth and investment and that they're seen as an economic return to the United States and, in particular, US corporations through foreign assistance efforts.

6:55      KS: Jessica Trisko Darden, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to organize the world in a neat, list format. Specifically, what are five major global issues with which foreign assistance can play a key role?

7:09      JTD: First of all, in dealing with climate change—both in combating it, but perhaps even more importantly, creating safety nets for populations that are being affected by climate change, including those who will need to relocate from territories or areas that will no longer be habitable.

7:24      JTD: Secondly, in dealing with pandemics. The United States has been a leader in global public health, not only because of high quality researchers and drug manufacturers, but also because the United States has the ability to rapidly and effectively deploy qualified technical experts in response to new and emerging diseases such as Ebola.

7:44      JTD: Thirdly, migration. In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, we saw novel foreign assistance schemes developed that used aid to offset the costs of hosting refugee populations, and increase the willingness of some countries to let refugees in. I think, moving forward, really more creative thinking needs to be done about the ways in which foreign aid should and sometimes should not be used in response to mass migration.

8:07      JTD: Fourthly, technology gaps. Foreign assistance, particularly technical assistance and support for private investment, can really help countries overcome some technology gaps. We see this most clearly in the rapid expansion of internet access, but it applies to other areas, such as clean energy, as well.

8:26      JTD: And lastly, conflict prevention. I think perhaps this might be a little more aspirational at this point, but I hope we'll find a way to find more successful foreign aid programs to prevent local level outbreaks of violence and to prevent terrorism.

8:40      KS: Thank you. Jessica, in your new book Aiding and Abetting, you write that there have been different outcomes of us foreign assistance as we look back through time.

8:53      KS: What's an example of a positive outcome? And then, on the other side, what's a negative outcome of US foreign aid?

8:59      JTD: I think the most positive outcomes in foreign assistance have undoubtedly been in the area of public health. Maternal mortality, infant mortality, control of infectious diseases—these are all things that have been profoundly impacted by foreign assistance programs for the good.

9:18      JTD: In terms of negative effects, one area that my research really focuses on is human rights abuses. I think for a really long time there has been this belief that foreign assistance would lead to economic development, which would then lead to greater individual rights and freedoms, and that simply hasn't been the case.

9:38      KS: Can you give us an example of, I guess, a specific country where that has happened? Or, are we talking about something as simple as saying that "if China enters the free market, that they will start not abusing human rights?" Provide some more context, if you can, for that.

9:54      JTD: Absolutely. China is one of those countries where it was assumed that economic growth would lead to increased political rights and participation, we'd see a human rights boom. But we also see it more specifically in major US foreign aid recipients. Oftentimes, we talk about democracy promotion through foreign assistance, how we want to engage with political rights. But when you look at longstanding recipients of US foreign assistance, countries like Jordan, for instance, countries like Egypt, we don't actually see the expansion of human freedoms in those countries.

10:32      KS: What about a country like Afghanistan, which is the largest recipient of foreign aid, I believe, in the world from everyone, and they continue to struggle and have struggled for so many decades?

10:43      JTD: I think this fundamentally comes down to the question of what is the political impact of foreign assistance? Because, if we look globally at all of the countries that the United States provides aid to, it's a very mixed bunch, right? So we have some countries that are on a positive track of economic growth that respect individuals' rights. Then, of course, we have countries like Afghanistan that are faced with high levels of political violence and domestic, and international conflict that have serious issues relating to fundamental rights and freedoms that limit education.

11:24      JTD: The question is, what reasonably can we expect foreign aid to achieve in those circumstances? I think that the reality is, foreign aid on its own can only achieve so much and that foreign aid needs to be part of a broader strategy of economic, yes, but also diplomatic and political engagement, that can help countries move toward a trajectory that supports US national security interests. But that we're not always going to be able to achieve that, and we're certainly not always going to be able to achieve that through foreign assistance.

11:58      KS: Right, and we know we will never be able to achieve all of our goals. What type of foreign aid strategy should the US adopt in order to avoid inadvertently supporting human rights abuses? Knowing that we can't always achieve everything positive, how do we at least adopt a strategy that helps us avoid supporting terrible things?

12:17      JTD: The US Congress has already taken steps towards that objective through passing a set of laws that have come to be known as the Leahy Laws, really spearheaded by Senator Patrick Leahy. These laws, which apply to different areas of US government spending, essentially say that the United States government cannot provide foreign assistance to governments or military units that are engaged in patterns of gross human rights violations.

12:47      JTD: However, even within that legal framework, there's always a presidential exemption. If national security or overriding interest demands that that aid be provided, the president is able to essentially get around the Leahy Laws. I think that's a problem. I think that we need to take the position that human rights are a fundamental part of the US national interest and US national security strategy. And that our upholding of individual rights and freedoms, both at home and abroad, is part of America's a leadership in the world and one of the things that makes this one of the best countries to live in.

13:27      KS: I wonder what it says to countries who receive aid about American values, when they seem to change from one administration to the other, when they seem that capricious.

13:36      JTD: I think actually think that, at least in the realm of foreign assistance, there are some very consistent values and strategies. The question is, the balance between acting based on those values and the political exigencies of any particular moment. We can say that we, absolutely as a nation and as a government, uphold democracy as an important political and social value. And at the same time, understand that, pragmatically, we do need to engage with governments that may not be democratic in nature.

14:17      JTD: I actually think that foreign assistance can potentially serve as a way to, kind of, thread the needle on those issues and say, "Look, we're willing to provide resources to support you, but we do have expectations in turn. We do expect that militaries will not crack down on civilians. We do expect that political opposition will be allowed to exist and flourish in whatever form can be made possible, that we expect accountability of some sort." We can't expect perfection based on imperfect tools.

14:59      KS: Right. Jessica, you have, I believe, a personal connection to this topic in that US foreign aid had an impact on your family. Would you tell me about that?

15:10      JTD: I think that, in general, our understanding of foreign aid and its impact is really limited because it's not something that touches the lives of most Americans. For instance, when I was growing up, foreign aid was really about Christmastime appeals by charities, such as World Vision or raising money for UNICEF while trick or treating.

15:29      JTD: But, as I got older, I came to understand how profoundly the personal history of my mother's family had been shaped by US foreign assistance. They left their home country of the Philippines as political refugees, fleeing the imposition of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, and during this almost decade-long period of martial law, the United States remained one of the Philippines staunchest allies, providing more than three-and-a-half billion dollars of foreign assistance.

15:56      JTD: As a Filipino American, I'm deeply concerned about what it means that taxpayer dollars were supporting a regime that imprisons 70,000 individuals and is alleged to have tortured more than 34,000 people in the '70s and '80s, just as I'm sure that Egyptian Americans and many others are concerned about the implications of our foreign assistance policies today.

16:17      KS: Thank you. I think that kind of drives at home when we think about not just foreign assistance, but foreign policy, in general, when we think about what our American tax payer dollars or American interests, how are they being used to prop up different regimes that we may have a strategic reason for being there, but the impact on actual human lives—I feel like it gets more attention now in the age of social media than maybe it did in the '70s and '80s.

16:48      KS: Do you feel like there's a little more sunlight there at this point?

16:52      JTD: I think that we are seeing an emphasis on personal stories and personal connections much more, in part, because of social media, but also, in general, I think we live in a much more interconnected world. But I also think that this isn't something that we have been unaware of. I remember my grandmother from the Philippines telling me that I needed to eat all of my rice at dinner because there were starving children in Africa that didn't have enough to eat.

17:21      JTD: I remember thinking as a child, "This is incredible, I mean my grandparents have like this giant garbage can full of rice in their kitchen. Right? How could there possibly not be enough to eat?" It's because my grandmother was aware of the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s and was seeing images of that on her television. And so, I think that we've been aware of these issues for a long time and what we haven't fully grasped is the role that our government and other governments like ours have played in those conflicts and in those crises.

17:57      KS: Jessica Trisko Darden, thank you for joining Big World. It's been a pleasure to speak with you about foreign assistance. Thank you.

18:03      JTD: Thank you.

18:04      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like a small treat left on our desks when we're having a bad day. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Jessica Trisko Darden,
assistant professor, SIS

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