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Make Foreign Aid 'Smarter,' Next President Told

Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO -- Humanitarian workers are calling on the major presidential candidates to invigorate U.S. efforts to end global poverty by reforming the way foreign aid is allocated.

"We're concerned that none of the presidential candidates to date have tackled how to make our foreign aid more effective at lifting people out of poverty," Oxfam America's Paul O'Brien told OneWorld Thursday.

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both promising to increase the amount of foreign aid the United States doles out.

Clinton wants to increase it by 1 percent of the overall federal budget. Clinton's Web site reads: "Hillary has put forth an aggressive plan to support public schools in developing countries in an effort to achieve universal primary education for the 77 million children around the world who aren't in school because they are too poor."

Obama says he would double foreign aid spending by 2012. He is also a main sponsor of the Global Poverty Act in the Senate, which would "require the president to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to further the United States foreign policy objective of promoting the reduction of global poverty, the elimination of extreme global poverty, and the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one half the proportion of people worldwide, between 1990 and 2015, who live on less than $1 per day."

Republican John McCain also has said he supports increasing spending on foreign aid, but has not released a specific plan.

Humanitarian groups argue, however, that more money is only part of the solution and that the entire foreign aid system needs a comprehensive rethink.

"All the candidates are talking about re-establishing America's global standing," Oxfam's O'Brien said. "Leading global efforts to have a safer, more prosperous world for everyone would seem to be an important part of that, but we're not seeing any of the presidential candidates making that argument."

A new report released this month by Oxfam found that most of the Bush administration's foreign aid budget is being sent to a handful of countries that are key players in the "war on terror" rather than countries with the highest percentage of people living in poverty.

According to the report, entitled "Smart Development," Iraq receives 29.5 percent of the U.S. foreign aid budget, followed by Israel at 10 percent, and Afghanistan with 5.7 percent.

The Central African Republic, whose national budget amounts to just $227 per person per year, received just 0.1 percent of U.S. aid; as did Sierra Leone (GDP per capita $218), and Niger (GDP per capita $158). All told, the report said, the ten poorest countries in the world received less than 5 percent of U.S. foreign aid.

"The emphasis on short-term security is reflected in the securitization of aid, where aid is increasingly driven by a military agenda and less so by civilian elements of U.S. foreign policy and national security," the report reads.

Other U.S. foreign policy analysts concur with Oxfam's findings.

"Just because a country is on the front line of the global war on terror or the drug war doesn't mean the people in those countries need it most," said Sheila Herrling of the nonprofit research and policy group Center for Global Development, which analyzes trends in aid effectiveness worldwide.

Oxfam's report also criticized the complex system of requirements that lawmakers have put on U.S. foreign aid, arguing that the money could do more good if responsible country governments and their citizens were given more control over its use.

"The Foreign Assistance Act has grown from just 100 pages in 1961 to over 1,500 pages today, and congressional earmarks for pet projects have hindered efforts to focus resources on critical poverty-alleviation programs," the group said in a statement accompanying the report.

"Smart development means enabling foreign governments to lead more responsibly and helping their citizens engage more actively in their own economic growth and development," added Oxfam America's president Raymond C. Offenheiser.

The group also urged the next U.S. president to change the rules that require some foreign aid to enhance profits for U.S. companies, often at the expense of the efficiency of the aid money itself.

"We have to look at foreign aid as part of an overall system," the Center for Global Development's Herrling emphasized. "In many countries where we give foreign aid we take away some of those benefits through trade subsidies. Aid and trade have to be connected and [political leaders] have to get beyond their pronouncements and make specific proposals."

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