TCS Daily

Foreign Aid's Surprise Parties

By Todd Moss - November 3, 2003 12:00 AM

Lately, the debate over foreign aid in Washington seems to have flipped upside down. Democrats are supposed to care about foreign aid and Republicans are supposed think aid is a waste of taxpayers' money, right? Maybe, but these days the parties seem to have switched personalities. It's the Republicans making the case that fighting global poverty serves our national interests and proposing bold ideas for providing assistance.


President George W. Bush - who as a candidate scoffed at nation building and derided foreign aid - is now among aid's strongest proponents. The Bush administration asked for and received billions of dollars for schools, power lines, and clean water to help rebuild Iraq. This comes on the heels of two of the most ambitious proposals for U.S. foreign development assistance since the Kennedy administration. The planned Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) would direct up to $5 billion per year to those countries able to use aid most efficiently, and another $15 billion initiative would target the countries worst affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.


And it's not just the President who is energized on aid. Republicans Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel, James Kolbe, and Henry Hyde among others have all fought on Capitol Hill to push development assistance up the foreign policy agenda. Republican congressman Frank Wolf recently introduced legislation calling for a commission to examine the delivery of U.S. development and humanitarian assistance around the world.


In response, the Democrats have been either obstructionist or irrelevant. The main resistance to funding Iraqi reconstruction is coming from liberal Democrats. Except for Wesley Clark (who proposes a cabinet-level agency to oversee U.S. development efforts), the other presidential candidates so far have nothing to say about how our aid policy can best meet America's global challenges. Some Democrats dismiss Bush's aid initiatives as an aberration or election ploy. They rightly point out that the MCA is stuck in limbo on the Hill without much of a push from the White House and that some of the HIV/AIDS money will come out of other programs. The feeble Democratic reply is partly out of skepticism that Republicans could genuinely be passionate about aid. Yet, the message on foreign assistance is clear: the Republicans are trying; the Democrats are naysayers.


What's going on here? Nothing new, it turns out. A recent study I conducted with Markus Goldstein of the London School of Economics on US aid flows since 1960 found no significant difference between the two parties in foreign assistance expenditure to Africa. John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and especially Jimmy Carter are all thought to have been friends of Africa. But it was Ronald Reagan who actually sent the most aid to the continent.


One explanation for this surprise is GOP strength on foreign policy. Republicans are seemingly better able to justify non-military foreign aid as an instrument in support of U.S. security interests. Reagan spent lavishly on anti-communist allies and the current Bush administration similarly considers aid an essential part of its arsenal in the war on terror.


But the GOP's enthusiasm for aid is not just for strategic allies, such as Israel, Egypt, and now Pakistan. Reagan gave huge sums for humanitarian reasons, notably famine relief. Bush sees the battle against disease and global poverty not only in strategic terms, but also as part of his "compassionate conservative" agenda. Indeed, if implemented as intended, the majority of the MCA and HIV/AIDS funds will likely go to countries of little direct strategic value.


By contrast, Clinton -- who was by all accounts enamored with Africa -- struggled to justify a post-Cold War rationale for aid and oversaw a steep decline in assistance flows after withdrawing from Somalia.


Constituencies are another reason. African-Americans vote heavily Democratic, but their traditional interest groups, such as the NAACP, have seldom spoken up for foreign aid. The Congressional Black Caucus doesn't even mention foreign aid or Africa among its 24 current priorities. Most of the mainstream aid advocacy groups that might find an ear in a Democratic administration, such as Oxfam or Africare, have generally not made a coordinated lobbying effort on aid. In fact, Democratic activists for aid to Africa are a diverse bunch with a diffuse agenda. As a result, they rarely catalyze major new aid programs.


Republicans, on the other hand, have a few well-organized aid proponents, such as corporate and evangelical groups. These advocates have effectively pressed for resources to, for example, foster trade or promote child nutrition. The outcome is a narrower range of activities, but sustained aid volumes. The conversion of the Republican right wing to certain African causes -- such as anti-slavery, anti-poverty, and especially their recent lobbying for more funds to fight HIV/AIDS -- is perhaps the biggest factor in Bush's newfound zeal for aid.


At the same time, both parties have strong anti-aid factions. Republicans may have more unapologetic isolationists in their midst who occasionally grab the headlines -- Jesse Helms' dismissal of foreign aid as money "down a rathole" comes to mind. But the Democrats also have a nasty America-first streak that opposes aid. Labor has never been particularly excited about spending money overseas. And it is mostly liberals who have hauled out recent anti-aid arguments over Iraq, claiming that domestic needs must take priority (or, that the funds wouldn't have been necessary if we hadn't invaded in the first place.) Both views may score political points during the campaign season, but are impetuous and shortsighted. On aid -- and, with the exception of Joseph Lieberman, on trade, too -- the Democrats are willfully ceding the internationalist high ground.


Our study did establish one interesting difference in aid spending once congress was thrown into the mix. Assistance to Africa was substantially higher when one party controlled both Capitol Hill and the White House than it was under divided government. This confirms that aid is highly contentious. But there was also a big difference between the parties in combination. A Democratic President facing a Republican congress produces the least aid to Africa. Think Clinton after the 1994 midterms and this seems unsurprising. But the best combination for African aid was Republican control of both branches. This suggests that skeptical Republican congresses tend to allow more leeway if one of their own is in charge. And it also affirms that the differences between the parties on aid are subtler than their reputations.


Considering the past forty years, the recent battle lines over foreign aid aren't so strange after all. Republican aid proposals aren't necessarily an implausible break with the past. But history is still no excuse for the shameful lack of vision by the Democrats when it comes to the future of U.S. development assistance.


Todd Moss is a Research Fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. He is the co-author with Markus Goldstein of "The Surprise Party: An Analysis of US ODA Flows to Africa," July 2003.


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