I’ve worked in foreign aid for 50 years—Trump is right to end it, even if his reasons are wrong

We’re not helping.
We’re not helping.
Image: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro
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A few years ago, a person named Jason Sadler wanted to help poor Africans by sending them a million free t-shirts. Sadler had never been to Africa, never worked in foreign aid, and while he evidently wanted to help the poor, his “1 Million T-Shirts” project was doomed by a mindless lack of reflection and zero up-front homework. Was there a need for T-shirts? Poor Africans all over the continent walk around in used T-shirts emblazoned with the names of plumbers in Kansas or bowling allies in New Jersey, and every road-side market stall sells them. Did it make economic sense to pack and ship a million T-shirts when the same money could instead be invested in something that might be lasting? And what about the effect of dumping these garments on poor economies already filled with similar donated goods? He didn’t ask.

I’ve worked in foreign aid for over fifty years, in over 60 developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In earlier years I would have scoffed at Jason Sadler’s naivété and called him a dumb do-gooder. My professional colleagues in foreign aid and I know better. At venerable NGOs like Save the Children, World Vision, CARE; at government aid agencies like USAID; at prestigious multilateral organizations like the World Bank; at big foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation; we believe we know what works to better people’s lives—we do our homework, we are analytical, thoughtful, and reflective. We are not dumb do-gooders.

But what if we are? What if we are neither analytical nor reflective? What if we do things that are just as silly as Jason Sadler’s effort? And worse, what if we are not even that sincere about doing good? What if we are in the aid business to make sure our own piece of the pie keeps growing?

If we look at the goal of instigating economic development—which is what development aid initially aimed for in the 1950s—and not just saving lives after a humanitarian crisis or finding a cure for malaria, the track record is quite poor. Given the seven decades that official foreign aid for development has existed (since president Truman’s Point Four speech in 1949), and the trillions of dollars spent, there is little to celebrate. The record looks especially bad when remembering the decades of confident declarations that did not even lead to modest gains: for example, the UN’s 1974 Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, the 1975 Lima Declaration and Plan of Action on Industrial Development (the goal of which was to increase less developed countries’ share of world production to 25% by the year 2000), the 1978 Alma Ata International Conference on Primary Healthcare which resolved to bring about “health for all” by the year 2000, the UN’s International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade which promised clean water for all by 1990, and of course the Millennium Development Goals, whose many unfulfilled promises expired in 2015.

There have been changes of course, and quite remarkable ones. We’ve seen third world countries become second world—Morocco, Botswana, Chile, South Africa, and Indonesia to name a few—at least in terms of big data statistics like GDP per capita. Between the 1960s and the 1990s we marveled at the rise of the “Asian Tigers” (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan). We’ve seen fertility rates come down, diseases conquered and prevented, children saved.

By far the most dramatic growth and consequent shift in poverty has occurred in China. The World Bank, looking at several countries during the quarter century between 1981 and 2005, concluded that poverty rates for China went from 84% to 16%—a drop of 81%, and for India from 60% to 42%—a drop of 30%. At the beginning of this period (1981) only four countries had a worse poverty rate than China—Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Uganda. But decades later these four countries remain more or less where they were, while China moved ahead. Why? India began to move ahead rapidly after 1991. Why? The answer is complex—a mix of culture, changes in government policy, and changes in arrangements in the political economy. But what most of these dramatic changes don’t correlate with is foreign aid. Aid has resulted in remarkably few significant shifts in economic growth and poverty reduction. The truth is much of aid’s promise has come up empty.

It is striking that the aid establishment has not dug deeper into the reasons why. It has not listened to four decades of trenchant critiques, many of them by insiders. Countless articles and at least thirty widely read books about aid (such as Michael Maren’s 1997 The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, or William Easterly’s 2006 The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, or Dambisa Moyo’s 2009 Dead Aid), have pointed out that outsiders cannot “nation build,” that development must be led by the people in the poor countries themselves, that dependency has been one of the few tangible results of the trillions we have spent, that the complexity and the context-specific nature of each country’s politics, social structure, and culture cannot be easily understood by outsiders and thus the short term three to five year aid “project” is a wildly inappropriate vehicle for aid, and so on. Moreover, a number of highly respected historians and economists like David S. Landes and J.K. Galbraith have pointed out that aid simply cannot produce development. Here is British development economist Peter Bauer in 1974:

What holds back many poor countries is the people who live there, including their governments. A society which cannot develop without external gifts is altogether unlikely to do so with them.

Not only does the aid establishment continue to ignore the critics, it has dumbed down much of its work. There are now thousands of ongoing projects that amount to band-aid solutions where the results of “our” interventions disappear almost immediately after the departure of our “expert” teams in their Land Cruisers: new water wells dug in villages where previous donor-built wells have failed; countless capacity-building workshops attended by poor people who are often motivated by the “sitting allowance”—a cash gift; tools given out to farmers who then sell them; projects that attempt to convert sex workers into sellers of samosas on the streets of Addis Ababa without realizing that the money they make in the sex trade is far greater than anything else they can do; microfinance projects in South Sudan where the economy is so bad that there is no money for anyone to buy what a “micro-entrepreneur” might have to sell. There are more ineffective projects like these than ever, all presented as world-changing in the aid agencies’ marketing campaigns (see the websites of USAID or of any major international NGO).

The main reason there is so little change is that aid has become an industry, and is rapidly moving towards what a present day Eisenhower might call an “aid-industrial complex,” an interlocking set of players (NGOs, government agencies, and private contractors, among others) who have largely closed off outside criticism and internal learning and become self-referential and entrenched. The main goal of this complex is to keep the money flowing. In 2014, thirty-three of the top 40 USAID vendors were American non- and for-profit firms and their total business with USAID was $5.53 billion. And these are only the top vendors. There are scores of other US organizations that get a piece of the American aid pie in the form of contracts and agreements.

If the aid industry were to listen to its critics, it would have to conclude that development aid ought to be less about money and more about collegial discourse, with “us” admitting that we really have very few answers. By far the most important conclusion to draw is that if the goal of development aid to poor countries is to be met, our agencies need to become smaller, not larger; we need to take a back seat and “do” less. Indeed someday soon, we need to prepare to go out of business. No industry wants to hear this, but aid is not like the auto industry. It was meant not to last. If there is a useful way forward for aid, it is to recall its original reason for being; As British scientist C.P. Snow said some sixty years ago, aid should be about people “who will muck in as colleagues, who will pass on what they know, do an honest technical job, and get out.”

It is too bad that the Trump administration wants to keep those parts of our foreign assistance that have nothing to do with development (the billions to Israel and Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan), but if aid is cut—even for the wrong reasons—to those nations where the evidence of its ineffectiveness goes back decades (almost half of the 48 countries on the UN’s Least Developed Countries list have been on it since the list began in 1971, e.g., Haiti, Malawi, Guinea, Benin, Niger, and others), there is a good chance that at least some of these countries will have a real incentive to take charge of their own future.