SAN FRANCISCO, California — Bilateral foreign aid aims to achieve domestic policy objectives while solving global and international issues. The challenge of balancing domestic and international objectives adorns aid with a mixed character where its identity is often in fluctuation. For instance, multilateral aid organizations such as the World Bank Group or the United Nations have goals that do not necessarily vary from the goals of a single country. The World Bank Group’s Twin Goals focus on reducing extreme poverty “to less than 3% by 2030” and fostering income growth globally. The United States, as a bilateral aid donor, has had various objectives as a part of domestic and foreign policies over the years.
The Nature of Foreign Aid
As a result, U.S. bilateral aid can evolve as political or policy factors rise or wane in importance. The appointment of Samantha Power as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reaffirms the significant role foreign aid plays today in U.S. foreign policy. Political scientist Samuel Huntington published an article published in the 1970s that highlights part of the debate in a different era of aid. At that point in the history of aid, Huntington notes an international environment in which an anti-aid sentiment among some existed.
Huntington attempted to examine the arguments for foreign aid in separate points, parts of which can still be observed in policy today. He considered a “purist” rationale where the motivation for aid existed without the motivations of foreign policy; motivations reflecting long-term economic self-interest in foreign market and motivations where aid was seen as a tool for foreign policy objectives.
Aid Changes Over Time
Aid has passed through periods where its importance has diminished in the eyes of U.S. lawmakers. Although historical events and periods have the effect of highlighting varied, strategic uses of bilateral aid, the aid ultimately rests on the foundation that political scientists, such as Huntington, refer to as moral and humanitarian obligations. Today, aid still exists in the balance between humanitarian and security goals as well as domestic and foreign objectives.
Within this context, U.S. bilateral aid decreased during the recent Trump administration and increased to a relatively stronger position under the Biden administration. For instance, USAID Vietnam’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) serves as a recent example of a balance between broad and narrow objectives on a local and global scale. The CDCS focuses on four pertinent objectives:
- improvement in Vietnam’s economic competitiveness
- Preventing and responding to infectious diseases
- Dealing with environmental problems
- “Overcoming” the legacy of Agent Orange, a toxic and carcinogenic herbicide used during the Vietnam War.
Policy Differences and Similarities
In Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s nomination process, Blinken made multiple statements emphasizing the prioritization of development and foreign aid. He called for aid to be “front and center” and well-integrated into U.S. foreign policy. The nomination of Samantha Power as USAID Administrator has eased the challenge of integrating aid in such a manner. The Borgen Project interviewed Sarah Rose, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, about the expected state of aid in the Biden administration.
Rose explained the significance of Power’s appointment. Power has a seat on the National Security Council (NSC) and recognizes “the need for better coherence in national security.” The move would help “[open]the door for aid to have [a]co-equal voice” when weighing in on foreign policy issues. Rose also suggested that, while aid might have a new focus on issues such as food security or climate change, some elements from the past administration’s focuses would continue, such as a continuation of “thinking about governance at USAID.”
As she noted in a Center for Global Development article, “the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath will be the dominant background of the Biden administration’s global development agenda.” Other priorities would likely include the importance of controlling corruption and reopening opportunities to international students.
The State of Aid Today
Unlike its downsized role in the previous administration, foreign aid may reclaim the spotlight as it did under the Obama administration. This remains particularly relevant as the U.S. focuses on pressing issues such as global re-engagement and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the rush to make policy recommendations for the new administration, think tanks have been quick to weigh in on various development topics.
For instance, The Council on Foreign Relations recommends that the incoming administration “should ensure that development programming in the health, education and governance sectors is directly responsive to such geopolitical priorities.” Appealing to a strong role of development, it surmised that “doing so in a consistent, cohesive and strategic way will ensure development sits at the heart of efforts to advance U.S. goals and interests.”
A different angle in a Brookings Institute report named COVID-19 and climate change as the greatest challenges for USAID. Its technical recommendations included a reorientation of strategy and priorities, recommending a change in approach to budgeting processes, personnel management and the organizational structure of USAID.
Today U.S. bilateral aid has evolved to push foreign policy through humanitarian interventions. It continually gains strength in the decisions of individuals, organizations and governments who champion the need for global development. As theorists have evaluated best practices over decades, U.S. foreign aid gains the potential to improve in impact and importance.
– Marshall Wu