Media Center6 Questions about Foreign Aid

Photo by Marie Arago for CRS

You are here

As the President and Congress consider the United States budget, including possible cuts to foreign aid, we thought this a good time to look at some of the questions people are asking us about the budget.

1. How big is the U.S. foreign aid budget?

Though surveys show most Americans think the figure is much higher, the United States’ foreign aid spending is just over 1 percent of the overall Federal Budget. And over a third of that is spent on security, from direct military aid – Afghanistan and Israel receive the most money – to drug enforcement, anti-terrorism measures and numerous other such programs. Money spent on poverty-focused aid is just over .6 percent of the federal budget.

2. How does United States compare to other countries?

The U.S. does have a larger foreign aid budget than any other country, but is far down the list when ranked by percentage of Gross Domestic Income (GDI). Sweden leads that list with a foreign aid budget that is 1.41 percent of GDI, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Those are the only countries that exceed the UN recommendation of .7 percent of GDI dedicated to foreign assistance by the world’s richest nations. The United States budgets less than .2 percent of GDI to foreign assistance.

3. Is foreign aid a good investment?

Most think that foreign aid, if properly administered, gives a great return on a small amount of money spent. For one, there is the goodwill generated when the United States comes to help those in need. These countries become our trading partners and customers. Many of the fastest growing economies are in Africa, where foreign aid has had an enormous impact in building the cornerstones of economic development: education, health, nutrition and good governance. Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama has said any cuts to foreign aid jeopardize U.S. security, creating a vacuum in fragile states that can be exploited by our nation’s enemies, leading to the need for much more costly – in money and lives – military intervention. As Condoleeza Rice, President Bush’s Secretary of State, said, “For the United States, supporting international development is more than just an expression of our compassion. It is a vital investment in the free, prosperous, and peaceful international order that fundamentally serves our national interest.”

4. Is foreign aid backed only by liberals?

No, traditionally U.S. foreign aid has had widespread bipartisan support for reasons that are both altruistic and economic. Modern foreign aid began in the wake of World War II as Europe lay in ruins. Learning from the lessons of the post-World War I era – when an economically desperate Germany gave rise to totalitarianism – the United States began a program to rebuild Europe and other countries affected by the war. There was an understanding that our economy would benefit from a thriving Europe, which it did. Many private groups, like CRS – which was founded in 1943 to help war refugees – participated mainly by continuing to help those displaced by the war.

One of the United States' basic food aid programs is named for its two Senate sponsors – Democrat George McGovern and Republican Bob Dole (both nominees of their parties for president). Republican George W. Bush initiated one of the United States' most ambitious foreign aid programs, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that to date has spent more than $50 billion to combat HIV, AIDS and related diseases. PEPFAR was renewed under Democratic president Barack Obama.

5. Does any of our foreign aid go to countries that hate us?

Among the top ten recipients of U.S. aid are countries like Jordan, which is an important ally in the Middle East; Ethiopia, a major ally in the horn of Africa; as well as Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda, all allies on a wide range of issues, including the battle against extremism and violence. Over the decades, this aid has helped many of these countries become full-fledged members of the world economy.

Look at Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and, in some ways, its most important economy. Its economic, political and social stability and its growth are very important not just for its citizens, but for the entire continent – indeed, for the world. Nigeria received $600 million in aid from the United States in the last fiscal year. Much of that went to extend electricity to parts of the country lacking it. As we learned in our country almost a century ago, having a functioning power source is critical in connecting rural people to the rest of the economy. Think about a child trying to study at home without lights; it's a lot more difficult than when you can just flip a switch, sit down and go over your homework.

Nigeria has been the site of some of the most heinous attacks by the extremist group Boko Haram. Poverty, illiteracy and governance issues are the drivers of opportunity for groups like Boko Haram. It's very expensive to fix problems like that militarily, much cheaper and more effective to fight them with aid that works to prevent these sorts of situations from happening in the first place.

And even if you look at more problematic countries – like Pakistan, where clearly many do not like the United States, or South Sudan that is in the midst of a horrific civil war – aid serves two critical purposes. First, it saves innocent people from death, further destitution or despair. Second, it builds capacity of local groups and leaders who can play a role in the future of their country.  We know from our work on the ground that the vast majority of the people in these countries want to live positive, productive lives for themselves and their children. We need to support those people, not walk away from them, abandoning them to extremists and violence.

6. The gospels clearly state that charity is a responsibility for every individual. But is that true of countries as well?

Catholic teaching is clear on foreign aid: wealthier nations have a responsibility to help poorer nations.  As Pope Paul VI said in the 1967 Encyclical Populorum Progessio, because of “the human and supernatural brotherhood of man,” there is an obligation to “mutual solidarity – the aid that richer nations must give to developing nations.” The Holy Father went on to say that each of us must examine our conscience to see, among other things, if we are “prepared to pay higher taxes so that public authorities may expand their efforts in the work of development.” He further stated “that the superfluous goods of wealthier nations ought to be placed at the disposal of poorer nations. The rule, by virtue of which in times past those nearest us were to be helped in time of need, applies today to all the needy throughout the world.”

This built on Pope John XXIII’s 1961 Encyclical Mater et Magistra, that stated, “The solidarity which binds all men together as members of a common family makes it impossible for wealthy nations to look with indifference upon the hunger, misery and poverty of other nations whose citizens are unable to enjoy even elementary human rights. The nations of the world are becoming more and more dependent on one another and it will not be possible to preserve a lasting peace so long as glaring economic and social imbalances persist.”

"We are all equally responsible for the undernourished peoples,” Pope John stated. “[Hence], it is necessary to educate one's conscience to the sense of responsibility which weighs upon each and every one, especially upon those who are more blessed with this world's goods."

Pope Paul VI emphasized the importance of the obligations of richer nations: “The matter is urgent, for on it depends the future of world civilization.”

Michael Hill

Senior Writer

Michael Hill
March 6, 2017

Based in Baltimore, MD

As Senior Writer, Michael is responsible for much of the editorial production of the Communications Unit: press releases, op-eds, speeches, etc. He also is a supervisor in the department overseeing the work of three communications staff in Asia, Africa and the United States.

Before joining CRS is 2008, Michael had a 35-year career at the...More