Does foreign aid work?
There is no simple answer to that question. Some experts note a lack of accountability for programs and places that receive aid to demonstrate effectiveness in achieving its goals; the accountability issue fuels criticisms that foreign aid is a waste of money. And in some cases, it’s difficult to determine whether foreign aid has achieved its goals: when, for example, the long-term goals include such things as sustainable development or a more peaceful world, measuring outcomes is difficult, especially in the short term.
Yet sometimes the effects of foreign aid can be more easily identified. As of 2018, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has delivered care to 14.6 million people (including 6.4 million children) and provided training for 250,000 health workers in sub-Saharan Africa. (When the program launched in 2004, only 50,000 people in Africa had access to any antiretroviral treatment.) Projects like PEPFAR that distribute humanitarian and development assistance demonstrably save lives and promote long lasting development.
But other programs are more of a mixed bag. Despite having received over $126 billion in U.S. aid since 2002, several USAID projects in Afghanistan remain unfinished and the country’s government generally corrupt. When misused, foreign aid can feed corruption, reward mismanagement, and prop up authoritarians. The bottom line is that foreign aid can help but it can also be wasteful or even harmful.
What is true is that U.S. foreign aid has a far reach: economic and development aid that helped rebuild Europe after World War II, humanitarian aid in Africa, and more recently military and development aid to Afghanistan. Only a few places in the world haven’t felt the influence of U.S. aid in some way. The graphs below chart the ebb and flow of U.S. foreign aid into different countries and regions at different times. By looking at the aid flows in the context of what was happening in the world at the time, we can explore how the relationship between foreign aid and foreign policy priorities has evolved.