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Even Before Trump Cut, U.S. Lags Comparable Countries In Providing Development Aid

President Trump’s plan to cut foreign aid and development assistance deeply to help pay for higher defense spending is unwarranted: the relatively modest U.S. spending on Official Development Assistance (ODA) — which comprises most U.S. foreign aid — already lags most developed nations as a share of the economy, has fallen in recent years, is considered relatively effective, and has the support of many military officials.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produces widely used information that compares the ODA — which funds “economic development and welfare of developing countries” — that 28 developed nations provide. The latest OECD data, for 2015, show that:

  • The United States ranks 20 out of the 28 countries examined in terms of how much ODA they allocate as a percent of gross national income (or GNI, which is the OECD’s measure of an economy). U.S. spending on ODA amounted to $31 billion in 2015, according to the OECD.
  • The United States devotes 0.17 percent of its GNI to aid while, as a whole, the 28 countries devote 0.3 percent. The agreed-upon United Nations target is 0.7 percent, which six countries (including the United Kingdom) meet.
  • By the OECD measure, U.S. aid exceeds only that of countries that are substantially less well off than the United States. U.S. ODA lags that of the other most highly industrialized countries on the list — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom — on ODA spending as a share of GNI. (See figure below.)
  • ODA as a percent of GNI rose considerably during President George W. Bush’s administration —largely due to a significant rise in spending on global health initiatives such as the fight against HIV/AIDS — but has dropped since then. In fiscal year 2009 (reflecting the last federal budget under President Bush), ODA equaled 0.21 percent of U.S. GNI, or about one-quarter higher than it is now.

As for the effectiveness of U.S. development aid, here are two key points:

First, the United States administers its ODA more effectively than most other nations do, according to an index by the Center for Global Development (CGD). CGD says the United States is particularly effective at targeting its aid on poor countries and at being transparent about its efforts.

Second, military officials are frequently among the most supportive proponents of U.S. development aid, not only because of its humanitarian benefits but also because it addresses the root causes of many conflicts. Notably, in one immediate response to the Trump plan to cut foreign aid to help pay for military spending, 121 retired generals and admirals wrote in a letter to congressional leaders:

The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way. As [current Defense] Secretary James Mattis said while Commander of U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism – lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.

Official Development Assistance 2015