Courtesy Reuters

Making Foreign Aid Work


Foreign aid is facing difficult times. Even some aid practitioners have called its effectiveness into question. While aid has had success in humanitarian relief, family planning, and reducing infant mortality, its record in promoting economic growth has been mixed. Economic growth is not the sole objective of U.S. foreign aid, and it may be the least important goal for policymakers concerned with security, short-term solvency, human rights, or democracy. But the effects of aid on growth can be measured empirically, and growth is a necessary condition for meeting most of the broad objectives of aid.

While aid has succeeded in promoting growth in some countries, in many others it has failed or even been counterproductive. A number of countries, many in sub-Saharan Africa, are poorer than when they began receiving aid several decades ago. Donors have often subsidized unsound economic policies. In such situations, foreign aid has perpetuated poor policies and weak economic performance. The solution is not to end or even reduce aid flows, but for donors to allocate resources more selectively.

In the 1960s and 1970s, aid was driven primarily by the security concerns of the Cold War, with an underlying focus on reducing poverty. During the debt crisis of the 1980s, the rationale for aid shifted to limiting the liability that developing country debts increasingly placed on the international economic system. Concerns about reducing poverty also resurfaced, but a new emphasis on promoting democracy and human rights complicated those sentiments. In the 1990s these rationales are joined by new priorities such as supporting export markets in developing countries. It is not clear that aid can achieve all these goals simultaneously; at times they may work at cross-purposes.

It is clear, however, that the manner in which the United States conceptualizes and evaluates aid has changed dramatically. Decades ago donors saw aid as a transfer of resources from rich to poor countries. Today they see it more as a means to improve the use

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