The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

7 things you may not know about US foreign assistance

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From the cover of Oxfam’s third edition of Foreign Aid 101, a quick and easy guide that dispels the common myths around foreign aid to developing countries. Here community members in Sri Lanka rate NGOs in their response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Photo: Atul Loke / Panos for Oxfam America

Few Americans would disagree that the aim of US foreign assistance to developing countries must be to help people help themselves. But did you know…?

This post was originally published April 1, 2014 and was updated April 14, 2017.

1) Foreign assistance is a bargain.

For the last few years, the US devoted just 0.8 percent of the federal budget to poverty-focused foreign assistance. In FY2015, the US government spent $28.7 billion on it around the world. Cutting foreign aid will not solve our nation’s budget problems, but it will impact the efforts of local leaders around the world making positive changes in their nations and neighborhoods.

2)   The majority of Americans support foreign assistance.

When told that the US spends less than 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid, 60 percent of Americans think that we should preserve that spending or spend more to reduce hunger and poverty around the world. US foreign assistance pays dividends for Americans too, by contributing to economic growth and a more stable world for us all.

3)   Americans greatly overestimate how much the US spends on foreign assistance. 

According to surveys, Americans on average think the US spends as much as 26 percent of the federal bud­get on foreign aid – more than on Social Security or Medicare – which is much different than the 0.8 percent reality.

4)   Americans spend more on candy, sporting goods, and jewelry than the US government spends on poverty-reducing foreign assistance.

The US government spends about $89 per person on development aid. Compare that to what Americans spend: $107 per person on candy, the $209 per person on sporting goods, and $212 per person on jewelry.

Need we say more?

5) When you compare US foreign assistance to other industrialized nations, the US ranks low.


Even though the US is the largest bilateral donor of official development assistance in absolute dollars, it’s far from the most generous compared to the size of its economy. The US’s ODA contribution compared to GNI is only 0.18 percent in 2016. That puts the US in 22nd place behind most industrialized nations. Britain, for example, contributed 0.7 percent of its gross national income in 2016 – more than twice the US percentage.

6) Development assistance is not just wasted by corrupt governments.

The US does not directly provide most of its poverty-reducing aid to foreign governments, but instead through US-based government contractors and NGOs. The US government has checks in place to minimize the risk of fraud and abuse and if done right, foreign assistance can actually push local institutions (foreign government agencies, private sector firms, and local nonprofits) to do the right thing and increase accountability to both their citizens and US taxpayers.

7) Ensuring local community groups have a say in how aid programs are implemented makes a difference.

Yet US foreign assistance is often slow, bureaucratic, politically-driven, and implemented from the top down. That’s why organizations like Oxfam advocate with decision makers in Washington, DC. Oxfam works to not only protect poverty-focused foreign assistance, but to improve the way the US government delivers it.


Figures are taken and updated from Oxfam’s quick and easy guide, Foreign Aid 101, which dispels the common myths around foreign aid to developing countries and answers some fundamental questions as to why the US provides it and how it can be more effective.

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  3.'Sheldon Stewat

    0.7% of the US budget is a huge sum of money. How many 0’s come after the decimal point before a significant digit shows up for money spent on US veterans?

    Stop giving our money away!


      Well, you see, there’s a pie chart that shows 4.7% goes to veterans benefits and services. I do agree that much, much more can and should be done to support those who have fought for our country, but foreign development is not the place to take it from. Maybe national defense (17%) could be cut a bit…


        stop telling the vets how much we appreciate their service and at the same time support the war on drugs which allows the terrorists to fund their mines with the sale of opium the base for heroin. rather counter productive. TPOUS should help out more but was a draft Dodger like the rest of heavy weights in government

    2.'Eto'o Fille

      I would really like you to verify what you are saying before talking non-sense. do you know how many billions of dollars the US receive from exploiting other countries? or do you know how the united states damage the whole planet with all these factories? They take more from the others than they give out. You even call it “our money” when it’s immigrants who work their butt off and lose it all on taxes for the economy of this country don’t complain.

      1.'E. Gallego

        Oh! You must be referring to the poor immigrants in the top 5% of taxpayers who contribute 60% of total income taxes collected. Do your homework.

    3.'J Weinstein

      Foreign aid, must be penny by penny accounted for by receiving country with documentation and on sight inspection by the U.S.

  4.'Brian T Paster

    I would bolster social security. The politicians should have no more pensions than American get is SSI

  5.'Brian T Paster

    The country gives away tax payers money to and what happends when you’re middle class is hungry and homeless in retirement.. Maybe should have left that money to bolster the ssi .


    This is the sad truth. I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of education regarding the topic, as well as not knowing how to make a difference or change in the current infrastructure. Only education and action can change the current cycle of spending.

  7.'Art Washburn

    I think it’s a serious problem when we send financial support to the countries that hate us. Especially when our own Homeless Issue is still outstanding and it is anathema for our country to give aid to people in foreign lands or inviting them to come to the U.S. Carte’ Blanche’ Such as what is happening as we speak in places such as Dearborn, Michigan. They drive around in $40,000 automobiles and use the Welfare system for food using the EBT, and they live in #150,000 homes. What is wrong with this picture. If we have One homeless child in America we can not afford this kind of spending. Americans should get the same kind of care as these Foreigners who don’t even concern themselves with Assimilating into American cultures.


      I’m trying to find out if there is some were it says that if the United States gives foreign aid one country they must give it to anyone that asks?

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  10.'Catherine McGowan

    I have come to the sad conclusion that those who put forth arguments about our spending too much on foreign aid (less than 1% of the Federal U.S. budget), will never believe we should spend those dollars on ‘foreigners.’

    Sorry but. I personally am becoming increasingly pessimistic about this country’s moral compass, especially, since the election of Donald Trump, a man who cannot compose logical, rational, compassionate, or constitutionally correct policies, etc. The man is morally bankrupt; intellectually limited; potentially open to blackmail from a U.S. foreign enemy; champion of policies, benefits, legislation, which disproportionately benefit the top 1% of the U.S. population.

    This is a man who has nominated multiple
    Individuals the American Bar Assoc. has determined are incompetent for the positions for which they have been nominated.

    This Administration has had the highest turnover in top personnel of ANY modern

    WHY should I NOT believe so many in this country misunderstand the percentage of the Federal budget spent on foreign aid and the benefit it provides the U.S. when it
    KNOWINGLY elects the likes of Donald J. Trump to the highest elected office? He is NOT the Savior of the U.S. and regardless of any proclamations he spouts about himself; any ingratiating statements made by those grovelling at his feet; or anything someone here may say will change my mind as to Donald Trump’s competence to be President of the U.S.


    I think you are wildly misinformed, the U.S spends more than 50 Billion in aid. That is a lot of money regardless what is going to, then you have defense spending for these countries, then the U.N which is crooked more than Hillary, the U.S spends more than 500 billion in all. The U.S has become a monster that cannot be tamed to disrupt,destroy,starve it’s own citizens to make them destitute on relying on big brother. The U.S uses shaming and fear tactics to make sure it’s citizens do not rise because the Glubberment has become to big to lose. These politicians live in luxurious comfort,ie making multi 6 figure incomes,while making backdoor deals equaling millions. 99 percent of politicians go in with no wealth come out millionaires. These people have no morals ,they respecy power and that is the only thing they utterly desire. The American people will continue to strive and live in stagnation because the politicians could not care less they live in Comfort. You really think the American people have any power because the same exact jacka** is walking through getting “elected” with just a different face.

    Politicians are the root of all evil and are scum. It helps to have friends in high places and scapegoatsto deter people from finding out what is really going on.


    Has anyone considered spending on humanitarian assistance helps win hearts and minds and helps people become our allies instead of enemies? This looks like a bargain from an investment standpoint alone when you consider how astronomically expensive wars are.

  13.'Gary Bailey

    Spoken like a true Demorat. Not in favor of cutting national defense; period. Let the nation our brave men and women faught for be protected so their sacrifices were not in veign.

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