Is Rick Perry’s zero foreign aid plan feasible? Desirable?
November 15th, 2011
09:30 AM ET

Is Rick Perry’s zero foreign aid plan feasible? Desirable?

Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.

By Alastair Smith – Special to CNN

Rick Perry claims that if elected president he would scrap foreign aid. While I believe such a plan might be good for poor people around the world because it could reduce dependence on the U.S. and promote third-world growth and democratization, I also think ending foreign aid is against the interests of U.S. voters.

Aid is only nominally about helping the poor. The simple fact is, aid does not flow to the most needy. Based on 2009 figures from USAID, only 29% of the U.S.’s $34 billion in economic assistance went to low-income countries and over $3 billion of that went to a single recipient, Afghanistan. While aid might have benevolent side effects, the reality is that U.S. foreign aid is used to buy compliance with policies favorable to America.

In the process, aid also props up those leaders who are willing to enact such policies. They tend to be mostly autocrats because their support can be more cheaply bought. The graph below illustrates the point by plotting U.S. aid to Egypt in millions of dollars. Either Americans suddenly became concerned about the plight of Egyptians in the late 1970’s or the U.S. paid out so that Egypt would recognize the State of Israel.

Source: The Dictator’s Handbook, p. 172 (Public Affairs Press, 2011)

Rather than being grateful, surveys such as the Pew Global Attitudes Project, find that Egyptians have a very low opinion of the U.S. But since U.S. largesse buys policies that Egyptians (or other aid recipient citizens) dislike and sustains repressive regimes to boot, such reactions should come as no surprise.

Cutting aid is like a Republican workfare program designed to break dependency. As with limits on benefits in social programs, ending aid forces recipients to change their ways.

To survive in office, leaders need funds to pay their cronies. If foreign aid were withheld, then leaders would be compelled to enact policies that promote economic growth in order to swell their tax revenues. Generally, autocrats fear such policies because once they let people interact economically, it is hard to stop them from also organizing politically. Foreign aid provides a crutch that allows wily autocrats to postpone reform and democratization.  But it also allows aid donors to extract more cooperative policies from aid recipients.

Foreign aid lets the U.S. buy policies such as anti-communism, anti-drugs, access to cheap oil and inexpensive market penetration by U.S. firms. Over the post-war period, the U.S. has spent $1.3 trillion on foreign aid; but it will clearly pay much more to achieve its policy goals. The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, cost far more. For the small price of about 0.2% of Gross National Income, foreign aid offers a far cheaper way to buy favorable policies than military force.

A Perry-style plan to cut aid would promote democracy and economic growth worldwide, I believe, but it is simply not credible. The temptation to buy policy concessions ensures the survival of the aid-for-policy favors system. However, Perry’s pledge that “every country is going to start at zero dollars” might be a good way to negotiate more favorable policies for fewer dollars going forward.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Aid

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    Hey just think. When the GOP regain power, they will start a war with Iran (totally unfunded of course). Then they will draft all the poor people to fight(die) in the war (just like the GOP wants) and give "no bid" contracts to the rich people. Killing two birds with one stone!!! Then we can use Iran's oil to pay for the war. And when the war is over, Iran will sell us cheap oil!!! Just like Iraq........Oh wait........Never mind.

    November 15, 2011 at 11:09 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      "When the GOP regain power, they will start a war with Iran (totally unfunded of course)."

      A pretty interesting claim, to say the least. WHY would the GOP start a "totally unfounded" war with Iran, in your opinion? Hint: If it's "totally unfounded" then there should be no reason to do it...

      November 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Reply
      • Just a moment

        Unfounded war? Haven't we been there before. Weapons of Mass Destruction, that weren't there? The post addressed the idea that war could be unleashed for special interest reasons, but not based on the foundation of necessity or national defense. Herman Cain sure indicated he would not "sing along" with Iran... As if we can affort another war! No, we're not afraid to defend ourselves if threatened, but Iran is OVER There, We ARE over Here.

        November 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Just a moment... The weapons of mass destruction WERE there. The pretty convincing proof is the fact that Saddam USED them to kill some 60,000 Iraqi civilians. The fact that they were no found yet DOES NOT PROVE that they did not exist. It only suggest that these weapons were hidden good enough in order not to be found. Further, in most cases, it's not a question if we can "afford" a war because it's not a matter of choice. I can only repeat that NO ONE will attack PEACEFUL Iran but there will be no other choice in case Iran will attack Israel or another country.

        November 16, 2011 at 5:34 am |
      • RickPerry

        Help me help the zionists kill innocent women and children. I'll tax you when I am president and I will give your money to the dirty evil zionists.

        November 16, 2011 at 11:54 am |
      • GOPisGreedOverPeople

        Learn to read dolt. It's "unfunded" not "unfounded". However both seem to fit perfectly.

        November 18, 2011 at 9:16 am |
      • GOPisGreedOverPeople

        You're not much a "Thinker". I suppose you stare at that naked man statue like Darrell Vanyo does!

        November 18, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • JonathanPollardTheTraitorSpy

      Except for the dirty evil devil worshiping zionist in racist apartheid israel. obama promised israel's spy agency AIPAC he would give the dirty evil devil worshiping zionists $10 billion and he would look into it where he would send additional tax dollars to them. Most threatening, obama said he would demand America support israel forever!

      Please, Vote Ron Paul for president!

      Obama is a traitor and he should brought to justice along with every other zionist supporter in America!!!! Traitors all of them!

      November 16, 2011 at 11:41 am | Reply
    • JonathanPollardTheTraitorSpy

      This joker is a zionist puppet – Americans beware when a traitor U.S. politician give preference to the dirty evil zionists in racist apartheid israel. Welfare bums for sure!

      This idiot said he will cut all foreign aid to the world except israel.

      Vote Ron Paul for president!!

      November 16, 2011 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • JonathanPollardTheTraitorSpy

      What the heck?

      I know what I'm going to do.

      I'm going to give all my money to the dirty evil z i o n i s t s.

      I'm going to get in debt and stay in debt.

      I am going to stay stupid like my z i o n i s t masters want me to be.

      I am going to watch senseless television so I can stay brainwashed.

      I am going to believe FOX News without question.

      I am going to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. to feel guilty.

      I will dump my Christianity and become a khazar jew.

      I will vote for any stupid politician just because they demand we war with Iran.

      And most of all I will give up all my American Rights so I can become a full pledged goyim. And I will let the fake z i o n i s t kill my children whenever they want as it is instructed in their holy books.

      November 16, 2011 at 11:46 am | Reply
    • JonathanPollardTheTraitorSpy

      Give your money to the zionists – Rick Perry says to do it. He's going to cut foreign aid to the rest of the world if he is elected president but not to the dirty evil zionists in racist apartheid israel.

      November 16, 2011 at 11:49 am | Reply
    • Sissy Zionist

      Give me your money! I need it to kill innocent women and children. I am a sissy zionist from israel and we need your money.

      November 16, 2011 at 11:51 am | Reply
    • RickPerry

      I am a complete idiot and slave to the zionists. Give me your money so I can give it to the dirty evil zionists.

      November 16, 2011 at 11:53 am | Reply
    • RickPerry

      this is a test. this is a test. this is a test.

      November 16, 2011 at 11:55 am | Reply
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    I agree with Rick Perry on this point. All foreign aid needs to be curtailed except for extreme humanitarian purposes such as getting medicines to the extremely poor in Afica who have HIV, for instance. We need to quit rewarding creeps like Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen for brutalizing his own people! We're not only giving this low-life foreign aid but also taking military action against his opponents. This the right-wing news media never talks about!!!

    November 15, 2011 at 11:27 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Foreign aid can be seen as a good will or a gift that best maintains friendships. If a country can afford it, it doesn't hurt to be generous, without expecting anything in return. Sweden, followed by Norwy, Denmark and Finnland top the list ranking foreign aid policies among the world's wealthy countries for many years. These countries are popular and have a high, international profile.

    November 15, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      But then again, j. von hettlingen, these countries never jumped into places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, killing a great number of people who didn't deserve to die, either, in order to exploit their natural resources!!!

      November 15, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  4. Bright Ideas?

    Perry also wants to "uproot and tear down Washington", by having a part time legislature (I wonder if he would support a part – time presidency too? Nooooooo, don't think so), by preventing activist judges from being elected and getting the Supreme Court to abandon abortion rights...

    Rrrrright! I haven't heard so much junk from a single candidate for a while. Mr Perry, the outsider, who has been in the Texas legislature since 1985, agriculture commissioner, Lt Gov. and Governor for the last 10 years. You call that an "outsider"? The man is to his elbows steeped in connections and inside deals and power mongering. But he's an outsider? Wuahhhahahaha. Carter (gov), Reagan (gov), Bush 1 (CIA), Clinton (gov), Bush 2 (governor) - if that's not insider then what is? Maybe it's not a most perfect scenario, but at least these folks had administrative experience (NO, Herman, you don't qualify here). And now comes Mr Perry, prodigy of Bush 2, telling us he is an Outsider? Oh the joke.

    Wisely he hasn't spoken much about foreign policy yet. No specifics, just criticism of Obama, but don't we all have the feeling, if he ever opens his mouth , he will join the ranks of part time governor Palin (russian connection, and outsider, 'nother gov), Herman Cain't remember Libya and Ron Paul "let's get isolationist again" – that's how it was when he was young, some long decades ago.

    The GOP / TP present a frightening display of clueless candidates. No, Barbie Bachman, you don't quite have the making of a natl leader either ( I try to break that kindly to her, I have family in MN). Mr Huntsman and Mr Romney show some promise, unfortunately they keep company with the wrong crowd.

    November 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Reply

    Most of China's aid is in the form of capital to invest in health, education or infrastructure such as water, roads, telecoms, rail and into nascent industries all of which help sustainable development over the long term OR short term emergency relief such as food aid and water sanitation kits. China provides more than the World Bank and the recipients like it. The Chinese benefit too through bilateral ties which is a win win. On the other hand US aid is typically provided for one of two purposes; military aid to keep a pro-US government in power (like in the cold war), or Christian based aid channeled through christina NGOs who assist communities in return for them setting up churches and such like (like in the imperial missionary days). Its not that aid is bad for people its that the type of aid the US in particular is providing is a waste of money. It aim (but fails) to meet the needs of the US not the recipients but it is a waste of time. America should cut its aid budget to zero or rethink its aid objectives.

    November 16, 2011 at 8:35 am | Reply
  6. Skeptic

    Is Rick Perry’s zero foreign aid plan possible? No, it's impossible. Israel wants her $3 billion alimony each year, and not one penny less.

    November 16, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  7. Adam

    This isn't going to happen. Israel will throw a childish tantrum if we cut off aid to them, they receive over 30 billion in aid every year. Rick wants cut aid to every nation except Israel which goes to show how much they control America.

    November 16, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply

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