America’s shortsighted development aid policies by mattsteinglass
July 16, 2008, 6:52 am
Filed under: Development, United States, Vietnam

I see via Matt Yglesias that the Center for American Progress’s Andrew Sweet and Natalie Ondiak have just issued a new report decrying the US’s shortsighted, intermittent, and hence ineffective development aid policies. They write:

There are three kinds of situations that contribute to Washington’s tendency to deploy foreign assistance as a short-term tool rather than as a long-term investment. The first is when crisis-driven geopolitical interests demand that we provide high levels of aid, as in, for example, Afghanistan or Pakistan today. The second includes man-made and natural disasters, as happened in Liberia during repeated civil wars over the last 20 years, or in East Africa, where recurrent famine over the past 50 years has repeatedly triggered our humanitarian instincts. The third includes chronic cases of failed states, such as Sudan, where the United States has national interests (political stability in a country that straddles the Middle East and Africa) but where humanitarian aid and peacekeeping missions are offered up as a palliative for the absence of a concerted, sustained, and proactive foreign policy.

On the first point, I think the authors would do well to note that even where the US does have relatively long-term development assistance programs, they are too often dictated by strategic interests. Look down the list of the top beneficiaries of the US’s PEPFAR anti-AIDS program, and you’ll find a list of countries from which the US wants diplomatic and counter-terrorism cooperation. PEPFAR funding in Vietnam will rise this year to $88 million, which is far more than the Vietnamese government itself spends fighting AIDS, and out of proportion either to US assistance to countries with much bigger AIDS problems (like India) or to the priority of AIDS as a public-health problem in Vietnam, where dengue fever, access to clean water, air pollution and other issues rank as much higher (and more tractable) public health problems.

And it’s a truism that development assistance programs driven by political considerations tend to be bad programs. Probably the most egregious instance of this in US aid to Vietnam is the $3 million in assistance related to Agent Orange which the US Congress authorized back in the summer of 2007. That money not only has yet to be spent, but RFPs were just recently issued for ways to spend it effectively. In other words, for reasons of guilt and diplomatic relations, the US Congress decided it wanted to give Vietnam some money to do something about Agent Orange, and only much later did anybody get around to figuring out what kinds of things it might make sense to do. The chief goal here seems to be to allow the US to reply, every time Vietnamese ask “Why aren’t you doing anything to help Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange?”: “We are! We’re spending $3 million on them.” This is not the most logical way to go about funding development or humanitarian assistance.


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