Global Relations: A Brief History of US Foreign Aid Policy
When hearing the term “foreign aid,” one probably thinks of the U.S. giving money to poor countries for food and water. While this assumption is partially correct, U.S. foreign aid is also a means of economic and political strategic fodder for the U.S. Foreign aid often includes providing money to foreign countries for militarization efforts or providing assistance from the U.S. military itself.
U.S. Foreign Aid
While some oppose the U.S. giving aid to other countries in favor of using the same money to bolster the U.S. economy and provide national security, they usually do so under the false pre-tense that around 25 percent of our national budget is geared toward foreign aid; the real number is only around 1.5 percent.
In fact, foreign aid acts as economic investment with other countries and creates trading allies, providing a return on investment. Also, foreign aid works to provide national security for the U.S. by stabilizing countries rife with conflict and poverty; such measures often end wars before they even begin. This notion was confirmed by a letter to President Trump from over 120 retired generals, urging the president to reconsider the ‘benefits’ of the proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget.
Throughout the history of U.S. foreign aid, one can simply follow our military. Here are four of the big shifts in U.S. foreign aid policy.
Foreign aid, as we consider it now, started post-WWII. In 1947, two years after the war, Secretary of State George C. Marshall insisted at a Harvard commencement ceremony that the U.S. needed an aggressive plan to rebuild Europe. The Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program, passed the next year.
In the next four years, the U.S. provided more than $13 billion in aid to European nations. The move, while helpful, was also tinged with a political agenda — the U.S. needed allies in Europe against an emerging enemy, the Soviet Union. The U.S. remains close allies with these European nations and 13 of them are current NATO members.
President Harry S Truman supplemented the humanitarian efforts provided by the Marshall Plan with further military and economic aid to allies in Europe by way of the Point Four Program, a technical aid program aimed at sharing U.S. technology and knowledge of agriculture and industry. This measure was ultimately a gesture meant to create allies against the emerging USSR. Truman then signed the Mutual Security Act of 1951, which replaced the Marshall Plan and shifted its priorities to containing the spread of communism.
Foreign Assistance Act of 1961
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was created out of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. The assumption was that by combining foreign aid programs, the U.S. could be a better leader and moral authority for the rest of the world (read: prevent the spread of communism).
USAID is now the main operator of U.S. foreign aid programs, leading development and humanitarian efforts across the globe ranging from the Feed the Future program, a global food security program providing funding, health services, water and protection to aiding peoples suffering from conflicts in South Sudan.
The Cold War
In the 1970s, the focus of foreign aid shifted from economic and political development, to meeting “basic human needs.” This lead to an emphasis on food production, nutrition, health and education — all means to providing developing countries with the means to be self-sufficient. Still, there was a political tinge. The U.S. was largely acting on anti-communism interests and Middle East peace initiatives. As a result of these priorities, Israel and Egypt became large recipients from U.S. aid.
Toward the end of the 1980s, Congress was tasked with reducing the national deficit and foreign aid was at less than 1 percent of the national budget. Still, foreign aid followed into the same countries as our military including Panama in 1990 after the U.S. invaded Panama during Operation Just Cause under President George H. W. Bush.
Due to the end of the Cold War and Congress’s continued efforts to maintain the budget deficit, foreign aid remained less than 1 percent of the federal budget until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Contemporary Foreign Aid
From 2003-2014, Iraq and Afghanistan received increases in economic and military assistance from the U.S. Afghanistan became the largest recipient of U.S. aid in 2017 at $4.7 billion. President George W. Bush also created the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003, which supports over 14 million people in over 50 countries living with HIV/AIDS. PEPFAR’s website claims to have helped more than 2.2 million babies to be born HIV-free to pregnant women living with HIV and AIDS.
In 2008, President Obama renewed PEPFAR and also signed the U.S. President’s Policy Directive on Global Development. The Obama administration called it the first of its time, but the measure resembles Kennedy’s act to instill the U.S. by way of foreign assistance and development at the forefront of moral and economic authority globally. The directive has a wide berth of goals aimed at providing increased global food security, global health and national security by working on poverty-related issues in impoverished nations.
Today, President Trump continues to insist we trim the U.S. foreign aid budget by over 30 percent, which will inevitably cut some humanitarian programs entirely. The Trump administration claims the cuts will go to bolstering national security, but as we’ve learned and as over 120 retired generals stated to President Trump, U.S. foreign aid is a form of national security.
– Nick Hodges