An International Foreign Aid Score Card

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its annual score card on donor country support for development aid.  The OECD measures and compares “official development assistance” (ODA)  that wealthier countries give as humanitarian aid, debt forgiveness, to multi-lateral development bodies and directly to poor countries. These figures exclude private philanthropy and only take into account governments’ budget expenditures 

And the winners are…Actually, that depends on how you count. If you are looking at raw numbers the United States gives them most, by far.



However, when you break those figures down as a percentage of Gross National Income, you can see that the United States is near the back of the pack. This is generally regarded as a more accurate way of assessing how generous a country is.  Or, to be more precise, it is a good measurement of the political weight that a particular government confers upon development assistance. As you can see, the Scandinavians apparently value ODA higher than the Koreans.   The UN suggests that 0.7% of a country’s GNI should be allocated for foreign development assistance.   

As it turns out, I attended a meeting at the United Nations Foundation with Salil Shetty, the Director of the UN Millennium Campaign.  In this role, Shetty is a professional advocate for the Millennium Development Goals — which includes things like reducing maternal mortality, improving access to education, and reducing the number of people who live in abject poverty.  His cause stands to gain through an increase in ODA. 

A question was raised if whether the global economic slump might cause a decline in the amount of money wealthy governments are willing to set aside for development assistance.   Shetty pointed to these figures to note that we actually saw an increase in assistance over last year, albeit slight. (The OECD puts that at about 0.7%).  He said that while some countries (he singled out France and Italy) used the economic crisis as a pre-text to scale back their aid, other countries that were hit hard by the crisis (he singled out the UK and Spain) maintained their commitments. 

So what about the United States?  First off, it’s important to point out that our government subsidizes private philanthropy through public policy.  For example, any money that I (or more importantly, Bill Gates) gives to the Gates Foundation to promote neo-natal care in Ghana can be deducted from my taxable income. This is why the philanthropic sector is so strong in the United States.  But there are limits to philanthropy. Even the Gates Foundation can’t marshal a fraction of the resources that are potentially available to the United States government.  

The United States gives about 0.2% of its GNI (or $28.6 billion) to foreign development aid. But if you dig down deeper into those numbers, you will see that most of that aid goes to just three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Precious little is left over for other countries, say, in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

To be sure, foreign aid will always be a reflection of our political priorities and values. I just wonder if there is room for boosting foreign aid in President Obama’s in going efforts to restore American global leadership. We’ll see.