The Limits of Foreign Aid
Big spending on development assistance doesn't necessarily yield geopolitical gains for the United States—or anyone else
Aside from a few laudatory articles and a conclave at the Bush Presidential Center, the twentieth anniversary of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, passed without much comment or commemoration. Still understandably overshadowed by the disastrous war in Iraq, PEPFAR stands as one of the more successful U.S. foreign policy initiatives of the post-Cold War era. At a cost of $110 billion over twenty years, PEPFAR has saved an estimated 25 million lives—mostly but not exclusively in Africa.
As far as both discussions of U.S. foreign policy and America’s relations with the rest of the world go, however, PEPFAR may as well not exist—and that poses a major problem for those who contend that the United States should focus more on winning friends and influence overseas via expansive and ambitious foreign aid programs. PEPFAR’s relatively quiet success suggests that such programs aren’t all that strategically useful: they can and do certainly save lives and help societies better cope with severe problems like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but they don’t necessarily cause countries or their governments to align politically with the United States.
Take South Africa: the country has received more than $7.1 billion in PEPFAR funds over the past two decades to fight one of the worst HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world. But this assistance counts for very little with the South African government and the heads of its ruling African National Congress party, who chose to conduct naval drills with Russia (among other things) even as the Kremlin’s troops rampaged across Ukraine. This apparent loyalty to Moscow results less from anything Russia has done for South Africa lately than on the warm fuzzies many aging ANC leaders feel toward Moscow over as a result of the Soviet Union’s largely rhetorical support for their cause during the Cold War.
We see similar attitudes in geopolitical discussions among foreign policy commentators and elites in the United States. According to these voices, America and its allies have offered African nations little or nothing in comparison to China and Russia—or even countries like the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. It’d be easy to assume reading these pieces that the United States has spent next to nothing on aid to Africa over the past two decades while the UAE, India, and other countries have splurged on various forms of assistance.
If the United States makes a major investment in a pressing global development issue and receives little to no geopolitical benefit from it—indeed, if policymakers and analysts barely remember it even exists—then it’s fair to conclude that these investments have little strategic utility. That’s no reason to shortchange them, however, and many of these programs remain worthwhile for humanitarian or development reasons alone—the lives saved by PEPFAR are worth the cost, even if the United States receives no political credit for the ultimate outcome. At the same time, though, that doesn’t mean they’re effective ways for the United States to win friends and influence people overseas.
Pulling back, though, this reality poses a severe quandary for the many critics, mainly on the progressive left, who argue that U.S. foreign policy is too “militarized” and claim that America can better achieve its objectives abroad if we devote more of our national resources to development assistance and humanitarian aid. Other, more geopolitically-minded analysts look at China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative and assume that Beijing must be outcompeting America for influence around the world given the enormous sums of money it’s spent over the past decade or so—especially in places like Africa and Latin America.
However, there’s little evidence that Beijing’s overseas spending spree has noticeably boosted its popularity abroad. To start with, Belt and Road projects have tended to start crumbling almost as soon as they’re completed; worse, in many cases these projects have left countries like Zambia and Sri Lanka saddled with onerous, unpayable debts that Beijing has proven extremely hesitant to restructure or forgive. Nor have Chinese foreign investments yielded the number of local jobs and other economic benefits promised in places like Guinea.
These are relatively recent developments, however, and will take time to work their way through affected societies. Nonetheless, it’s already clear that Beijing’s substantial international investments haven’t necessarily won over hearts and minds around the world. A recent Gallup poll found greater approval for American than Chinese leadership in Latin America (36 percent versus 23 percent), while the two countries ran more or less even in sub-Saharan Africa (56 percent approval for the United States against 52 percent for China). Moreover, most nations in Africa and Latin America have voted with the United States on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly—hardly the sort of hedging neutrality on the war that’s said to characterize the so-called “Global South.”
For the United States, at least, the diplomatic problem has less to do with popular attitudes abroad than with elites and their often-dated ways of thinking about the world. South African and Indian policymakers, for instance, cling to Cold War-era resentments and habits that fuel their own positions regardless of what the United States does or does not offer them—habits that have proven hard to break. The way U.S. aid frequently reaches these nations doesn’t help, either; PEPFAR, for instance, bypassed national governments in many cases, which was probably for the best but ensured those governments did not have a direct stake in the program itself.
We shouldn’t assume all is well and that there’s no real challenge to American influence around the world. It’s not, and the United States has taken its geopolitical influence for granted in too many parts of the world. Moreover, critics are right to say that America does need to offer the world more than military hardware or financial wizardry—or even foreign aid largesse. Nor are U.S. foreign aid programs without flaws and shortcomings, some of them severe Indeed, these programs may not address the right problems in the right ways more often than we’d like or even realize.
But there’s no reason to think that more foreign aid will win the United States—or anyone else for that matter—more friends and greater influence overseas. Development and humanitarian relief programs should be done either for their own sake or as a way to build stronger ties with foreign nations and their governments, which in turn means helping these governments pursue their own priorities—whatever they may in fact be. That can help the United States gain a step on China, whose overseas spending binge has reflected Beijing’s own needs as much as those of its foreign partners.
Either way, though, the United States can’t base its foreign policy on the proposition that everyone will like us—and like us so much that they’ll do what we want when asked—if we just spend enough money on the right things. As Beijing has discovered recently, nations can’t simply buy influence overseas. We’ve got to look beyond diplomacy and development to create new opportunities to engage and cooperate with other nations in areas like science and industrial policy, not assume that existing programs and policies can succeed if only we increase their size and scope.
When we find these new avenues to win friends and influence people overseas, we can stop seeing development assistance as transactional—and let foreign aid work on its own terms.