Foreign Aid: Effectively Advancing Security Interests

By Adelman, Carol | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Foreign Aid: Effectively Advancing Security Interests

Adelman, Carol, Harvard International Review

The use of foreign aid as a tool to advance national security interests has been a driving force in US foreign policy since the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the United States' first official aid program. Critics of using aid for national security purposes, such as Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs and InterAction President and CEO Samuel Worthington, claim that this geopolitical aid goes to countries that are often wealthier and more corrupt than the nations that do not receive it. Such aid, the argument continues, is not spent on long-term development, but on short-term political gain. Proponents of this view draw the conclusion that foreign aid, so motivated, cannot be effective in reducing poverty.


Such contentions are largely unfounded. While there are certainly motivational differences between development aid and security assistance, the natures of these projects are essentially the same, with resources in both cases targeted toward education, health care, agriculture, infrastructure, the environment, and long-term development. In addition, the evidence suggests that security aid does go to poor countries that are in need of assistance, and furthermore, that it is spread across many different regions of the world.

However, critics are not wholly incorrect in saying that foreign aid has not been effective at reducing poverty and increasing prosperity. Indeed, evidence suggests that while disaster relief has been successful, development aid more broadly has been ineffective in generating prosperity, and security assistance has been only somewhat effective in improving US national security interests. The reason for this lack of success in development initiatives has been an unwillingness to engage with local populations and adapt aid programs to a rapidly changing world. The most effective aid programs are not those implemented by USAID or the US government, but are those that are run by private donors while being based on local initiative and involvement. If the United States hopes to use aid effectively in order to bring countries out of poverty and improve its image abroad, it must recognize these trends and devise policies to integrate new models into its foreign aid programs.

Historical Rationales for US Foreign Aid

Before addressing some common misperceptions and deficiencies in US aid policy, it is important to understand the historically central role of foreign aid in US national security policy. The goal of the Marshall Plan, which was to help European democracies back on their feet economically while working together politically, was obviously connected to US security interests at the outset of the Cold War.

In the United States' early clashes with Communism, as Theodore White wrote in his book In Search of History, the Marshall Plan was the master move. When George Marshall returned from Moscow in the spring of 1947, there were fears that Stalin would occupy Western Europe. Marshall's plan to buttress European economies and provide political support for their unstable post-war governments likely kept Stalin from pursuing more aggressive policies. As White wrote, "The Marshall Plan had won because it had linked gain with freedom, had assumed that the movement of minds and the movement of peoples must go with the movement of goods and merchants."

While some have questioned its economic impact, the Marshall Plan had an indisputable effect on European integration, bringing its countries together and Germany back into the European community. Thus, the two rationales for providing foreign aid--economic development and US national security--were embedded in the first modern economic aid package. Providing disaster and humanitarian relief to the developing world later became a third important pillar of the US foreign aid agenda.

Disaster Relief and Development Assistance

In evaluating the effectiveness of US financial assistance programs, it is useful to distinguish between the aforementioned three pillars of the US foreign aid agenda--disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, development assistance, and security assistance--as each has met with varying degrees of success.

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