What the U.S. Gains From its Development Aid to Sub-Saharan Africa

By Stephen A. O’Connell·January 31
Swarthmore College

The Issue:

Is the U.S. spending too much on foreign aid to Sub-Saharan Africa? One view is that we have pressing problems at home that we should address before we give money to other countries. The Trump administration’s skeptical queries to the State Department’s Africa Bureau reflect this line of questioning and suggest a potentially sharp reduction in White House support for aid to the continent. But many argue that aid to Sub-Saharan Africa is more than justified by its results, both in moral terms and in the economic and security benefits it generates for our country. Some view the political transition in the U.S. as a crucial opportunity to improve the effectiveness of U.S. aid by reforming how aid is managed.
U.S. assistance to Sub-Saharan Africa saves many lives while costing American citizens a relatively small share of national income.

The Facts:

  • The financial burden of foreign aid is much smaller than most Americans think. The U.S. government spends less than one fifth of 1 percent of national income on official development assistance across the world, about half of what other donor countries spend relative to their incomes (see chart). Foreign aid (which excludes military assistance) accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget, a number Americans routinely overestimate by a margin of roughly 20 to 1. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about a third of our total aid budget – about 25 cents per person per day in the U.S., by contrast with daily defense outlays of more than $5 per person.
  • Critics of foreign aid tend to question its effectiveness and the degree to which it is wasted or ends up in the hands of corrupt governments. Such debates are hard to resolve definitively because circumstances vary widely from one country to another and it is difficult to show what would have happened in the absence of aid. But a comprehensive recent study finds that, on average, aid generates substantial economy-wide benefits to the receiving country. Donors can also point to some spectacular successes in global health. At the project level, U.S. Agencies are increasingly committed to rigorous evaluation and can draw on a growing base of randomized controlled trials (which are widely considered the gold standard in evaluating the impact of a program) to help identify cost-effective interventions.
  • Health and humanitarian aid represent more than 80 percent of U.S. aid to Africa and are supported by many Americans. The U.S. continues to lead the global fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa, with major results and with apparent support from President Trump during the campaign and from Rex Tillerson, Trump's nominee for Secretary of State. For instance, between 2000 and 2015 the number of malaria deaths in children under 5 years in Sub-Saharan Africa dropped from an estimated 694,000 to 292,000 per year. The U.S. is the largest donor towards efforts to combat malaria, contributing 35 percent of global funding. These programs enhance the well-being and productivity of African populations, including girls and women whose access to security, nutrition, health services and education can break the inter-generational transmission of poverty. Programs targeting agricultural productivity, trade facilitation and domestic revenue mobilization in Africa promote cost-effective routes to economic transformation and self-reliance on the continent. Sustained economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa benefits the U.S. both by reducing the need for assistance and by providing growing markets for U.S. exports and foreign investment.
  • There are also costs and risks associated with not doing anything. Poverty and state failure in Africa threaten U.S. security by providing safe-havens for terrorist groups, propagating conflict and refugee movements across borders, generating intense pressures for permanent out-migration, and heightening cross-border risks from epidemic diseases. The links between defense, diplomacy and development in the 21st century were central to the national security strategies of the Bush and Obama administrations. The vital national security role of civilian-led development assistance was underscored recently by more than 170 former U.S. 3- and 4-star generals from across the ideological spectrum.
  • In announcing his candidacy in June 2015, President Trump said that the U.S. should “stop sending foreign aid to people that hate us.” The United States is perceived very positively in Sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 80 percent of respondents report a positive view. This rating is far more favorable than in other regions of the world. To analysts of soft power, the degree to which a country is viewed as a global force for good is a crucial source of national security and influence in the 21st century.
  • China’s bilateral aid and commercial ties with Africa have expanded spectacularly during the 2000s, and Africans now rank China a close second to the United States as a development model for their own countries. Reflecting its increasing economic weight and frustration with Congressional delays in rebalancing voting rights at the IMF, China has recently sponsored a set of major development initiatives (the One Belt, One Road Initiative 2013, the New Development Bank 2014, the Asian Infrastructure Bank 2015) that both complement and rival the activities of traditional donor institutions in developing countries, particularly in infrastructure finance. Nowhere is the need for infrastructure greater than in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the U.S. is engaged in an all-of-government effort to facilitate private-sector investment in electricity-generation capacity across the continent.

What this Means:

U.S. assistance to Sub-Saharan Africa saves many lives while costing American citizens a relatively small share of national income. To scale back our efforts would abandon some of our country’s most steadfast friends and repudiate the stated preferences of Americans, whose survey responses reveal support for humanitarian and development aid to the poorest. It would undermine the quality of life in Africa and weaken our partnerships with the next generation of emerging economies. It would cede influence to China on a continent where low incomes generate cross-border spillovers of conflict and where weakened governments can provide safe havens for terrorist groups. In each of these respects, an “America First” campaign that turns away from Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be costly to our country. A comprehensive new report suggests, instead, that the vital national-security role of development assistance calls for a set of reforms that consolidate assistance efforts currently dispersed across multiple agencies and that elevate the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development to cabinet status.


Africa / Foreign Aid
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