James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Grim Outlook for U.S. Foreign Aid

by James M. Lindsay
October 4, 2011

Photographer: 	 REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco American soldiers carry relief supplies for families affected by Typhoon Durian from a cargo plane after its arrival at the Manila International airport December 7, 2006. Americans, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), provided disaster relief and assistance to the Philippines after it was severely hurt by Typhoon Durian that killed 570 people and destroyed nearly 250,000 houses. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco (PHILIPPINES)

American soldiers carry relief supplies for families affected by a typhoon in the Philippines. (Romeo Ranoco/courtesy Reuters)

The New York Times has a front-page story today on how U.S. foreign aid programs face major budget cuts. Why the Times chose today to run the story is anyone’s guess. The gloomy budgetary picture for foreign aid has been obvious for months. So while the story doesn’t break any news, it comes with nice charts. And as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Three big points. First, foreign aid spending today is higher when measured in real (or inflation-adjusted) dollars than it was during much of the 1980s and 1990s. That is because foreign aid budgets were slashed under Bill Clinton and grew substantially under George W. Bush. (Yes, a Republican president was good for foreign aid, a Democratic one not so much.)

U.S. Foreign Aid Since 1977, in Billions

Second, foreign aid has fallen as a share of the federal budget over the last three decades. So while spending on foreign aid has grown in absolute terms it has declined in relative terms.

Third, the White House will be lucky to hold foreign aid spending flat in 2012. Even the Democratically controlled Senate wants to cut its request.

The looming cuts to the foreign aid budget will prompt a lot of hand wringing, much of it justified. We will see a spate of op-eds extolling the strategic benefits of foreign aid, and the White House will likely ask military officials to help make the case for foreign aid as a way to prevent problems and take pressure off the military.

This outcry won’t have much effect, for a reason apparent in the story the Times article tells about Representative Kay Granger (R-TX), Chair of the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee, which oversees the foreign aid budget:

She recalled a State Department envoy’s informing her of $250 million in relief to Pakistan after last year’s devastating floods. “I said I think that’s bad policy and bad politics,” she said in an interview at her office on Capitol Hill. “What are you going to say to people in the United States who are having flooding?”

In short, for voters, problems around here trump problems over there. So the U.S. Government will end up doing less with less.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Tony

    Cutback in foreign aid is the right thing to do, why? Because , people are talking about it in the churches, community events, and other social gathering.
    We should not make a political agenda out of it, we should simply take the percentage off the total foreign aid , similar process to other domestic cuts that we are currently doing.
    Florida is taking 25% cuts between municipalities and other agencies, so what’s wrong with doing the same thing for foreign aid?

  • Posted by Robert Levin

    It’s a question that business owners across the country are asking themselves every day. They want to make sure they’re getting the most out of every dollar. It’s an important exercise even in the best economic times. In tough times, it’s critical. –Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton


    FACT: USAID’s efforts in global health have saved millions of lives. According to a recent survey, 56 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government should invest in global health.

  • Posted by Jim Tarrant

    I’m actually surprised that everybody everywhere is talking about foreign aid. Usually, it is almost never discussed in the media or political discussions I have ever encountered. But, I think the point is that even if you completely zeroed out all foreign aid, it only makes up less than one percent of the annual budget and so would have next to no effect on the deficit. Indeed, it would simply sharply increase the Defense budget to cover all the tasks now done by USAID and DOD, lacking the expertise, would do a really bad job.

  • Posted by Joe

    If the federal and state governments are going to cut spending by 25% that would eliminate a lot of government jobs, financing to schools, essential infrastructure projects, DOD programs and military personnel, emergency relief aid, and basic government functions then it is telling me that we have no money what so ever for all foreign aid. It does not matter if it is less than or more than one percent of the annual budget, it is tax money that the US population did not vote for. If there is no money for the USA then there is no money for any kind of foreign aid. A “drop in the bucket” is still a lot of tax money that can be spent here first. We should all write to Congress to terminate all foreign aid and tell the world to go to China and Russia for aid.

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