Aid and change

President Obama's changes in foreign aid should make recipients more accountable and productive.

September 24, 2010 

Almost since the beginning of America's commitment to help less-fortunate nations under the general heading of "foreign aid," critics have questioned whether such assistance has had a productive result. Does the money simply keep the wolf from the door, year to year, pulling desperate countries just out of reach of catastrophe? Is it wasted in administrative costs, which can be a code phrase for dishonest leaders skimming off the top? Once the checks are written, is there any reliable accountability?

Perhaps it is the global recession, but other big givers such as Germany and Canada have begun to demand tangible results. President Obama, in remarks at the United Nations (he made another speech there yesterday on general issues facing the world community) this week, announced that hereafter the United States is going to channel its aid to countries that are using it to become more self-reliant. Ultimately, the president said, that should mean that countries now receiving regular help could aim toward one day being among those nations that give aid themselves.

'Recipient to donor'

He cited as an example South Korea, once a major beneficiary of American aid and now transformed, Obama said, "from a recipient of aid to a donor of aid. It's the force that has raised living standards from Brazil to India." The president also cited several African nations as having used the aid they've gotten to in essence help themselves help themselves.

Obama's administration intends to build on a Bush-era initiative called the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which offered special help to countries that were trying to develop their own resources and also straightening out their own governments.

"We will seek partners," Obama said, "who want to build their own capacity to provide for their people. We will seek development that is sustainable. The days when your development was dictated in foreign capitals must come to an end."

Those who take the most radical view that America should pull back from world leadership and dramatically reduce foreign aid will be disappointed. That was not the aim of the Bush administration and Obama made clear that those countries with the most desperate and immediate needs still will be able to count on the United States for help. No catastrophe has ever found the U.S. not doing its part and much more, be it a natural disaster or famine or the ravages of war.

Not unreasonable

But it is not unreasonable to expect that countries with some resources that have been getting help on a regular, long-term basis should demonstrate not only an intention to build infrastructure and jobs and find long-term solutions to their problems, but also some tangible examples of what they have done.

Becoming dependent on American aid (and that of America's allies) is not the sole fault of the countries on the receiving end. If the United States demands nothing in return, the leaders of these troubled nations have little incentive to do much more than cash the checks. A change in how foreign aid works will provide that incentive.

The president said, for example, that in countries where aid has been put to productive use, assistance will continue. But in cases where there are comparable countries in a nearby region that have done little, that aid might be reduced.

This does not mean America is shirking its world leadership role. On the contrary. By demanding results from the investment of foreign aid, this country can hold a recipient nation's leaders to a higher standard of performance and thus benefit the people of that nation over the long term.

That is true constructive leadership.

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