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.

Graphic: http://onforb.es/1hzc016

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.