January 25th, 2014
12:49 PM ET

The myths of foreign aid

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By Fareed Zakaria

I’m in Davos, Switzerland, the site of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting. I usually use our “What in the World” section to give you my thoughts about something that struck me. But I’m going to cede this space to someone else today – Bill Gates.

His annual letter is out. It debunks three myths about fighting poverty and has gotten attention for its claim that by 2035, there will be no more poor countries in the world (using today’s definition of poor, of course).

But what caught my eye was myth number two: foreign aid is a big waste. Actually, this might not strike many as a myth. Lots of people believe that what we send abroad doesn’t really help countries alleviate poverty and develop. Well, Gates does a very nice job carefully explaining why foreign aid has in fact been a pretty spectacular success. The largest piece of evidence for this is literally the life-saving effect of aid.

Gates gives us the numbers:

- Since 2000, 440 million children have been immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases

- Since 1988, 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio

The results are stunning. Twenty-five years ago, the number of polio cases each year was 350,000. In 2013 it was 400.

And it’s not just about health either – the percentage of children in school in Africa has gone from the low of the 40 percents to 75 percent over the last forty years.

Savings people’s lives, making them healthy and ensuring that they get an education is not simply and deeply a moral thing to do – it has practical benefits as well. These people now work, earn a living, and help make their countries less reliant on aid. Many countries that received large amounts of foreign aid from the West are now developed enough that they don't need it anymore: among them, China, Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Morocco, Peru. In fact, China is now a big donor of foreign aid.

Part of the problem here is that we lump together all kinds of aid. There’s aid that was given during the Cold War – say to Mobutu Sese Seko, who led what was then Zaire – for purely strategic reasons with no attempt to develop the country. There is aid for research and science. There is aid for public health. And then there is aid for general economic development.

The reality is that foreign aid programs have to be well designed, properly targeted, and well implemented – just like any other effort in the real world, whether it be public or private. They must be monitored for corruption and unintended effects. But when these conditions apply – and they do in many, many cases – foreign aid has a big positive effect.

And how much are we spending to get these benefits? Americans guess that their government spends 25 percent of its annual budget on aid. How much should it be spending, they are asked? Ten percent is the answer. Well, the fact is that the United States spends less than one percent of its budget on aid. That’s $30 for every American. Is this money a waste?

If you add up all the money spent on health-related aid since 1980, and divide that by the number of children's deaths that have been prevented, you get a figure of just $5,000 to save a child's life.

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Topics: Aid • Development • United States • What in the World?

soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. ItSoNlYmE

    Not all foreign aid is created equal. Of course foreign aid for things like vaccination programs, education, and so forth are wonderful. It's the BILLIONS a year the US sends to foreign militaries to prop up corrupt governments and that given to countries (Israel) that don't need it. That's where the problem lies.

    January 25, 2014 at 5:20 pm | Reply
    • Humanity4All

      I think any kind of aid to any country in Middle should be stopped. It is a complete waste.

      January 25, 2014 at 10:50 pm | Reply
    • Quinton

      Well said. If U.S. foreign aid is so "successful", then why are so many people in these countries going hungry and have to literally live in the streets? U.S. foreign aid is no more that a tool to promote U.S. neocolonialism!

      January 27, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  2. paul

    You can not blame anyone for wanting a decent right to life, This is a huge world, massively rich with resources, But what remains to be seen is if it will sustain all the population comeing , we have to stop slaughtering rain forest, forests in general, all the machine work is altering and drying the forests and oxygen up, we are polluteing our oceans that feed us food and oxygen, If going into space to other planets is going to help alleviate the problem ,i would suggest they not waste any time getting out there,

    January 25, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  3. ZombieInTheBuff

    As a tax paying American, I want all aid earmarked for *insert whatever country here* to go to the poor at home first. When we get our own house in order we can worry about the neighbors.

    January 25, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Reply
    • Tom

      I could not agree more. Mr. Zakaria discusses the merits of aid, etc. etc. but the real point is that we cannot save the world and we are in serious debt with serious problems here at home such as unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. We simply can't afford to take care of the world.

      January 25, 2014 at 6:32 pm | Reply
      • skytag

        The paltry sum we spend on foreign aid is in no way enough to "take care of" the rest of the world. It's about as much as we spend on pet food in this country. I don't support all forms of foreign aid, but properly spent it makes a big difference in the lives of human beings in countries where people live in conditions you likely can't even imagine. Countries where average life expectancy is as much as 30 years less than it is here, where people simply don't get medical care if they can't pay for it out-of-pocket. A billion people live on less than a dollar a day.

        We have it so much better than these countries it isn't even funny. Yes, we have problems and America isn't a utopia, but it will never be perfect. I think it's self-absorbed in the extreme to suggest we shouldn't do anything to help anyone else until things are perfect here. It would be like saying you're not going to donate to charity until you're a billionaire.

        January 25, 2014 at 10:31 pm |
      • yll

        spoken like someone who's never been to a part of the world where people starve not because they can't afford food, but because there simply isn't enough to go around. where people die of diarrhea because they have to walk to the nearest well for water that may not even be clean. where entire communities live like the american homeless, only without the benefits of shelters, soup kitchens, or running water. oh but unemployment is soooooooo bad

        January 27, 2014 at 1:23 pm |
    • gdawg

      This is a narrow-minded and short-sighted view. The simple fact is that we could easily be spending more to support disadvantaged people here in the US, AND providing aid abroad. The reality is that there is very little support in Congress for increasing aid anywhere. In addition, the 1% of the federal budget we spend on foreign aid is but a small fraction of the aid we currently provide here at home.

      With that said, Zakaria's short opinion piece leaves unaddressed the many benefits and downsides of aid. It would be nice to see a more complete picture.

      January 25, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      But how would they pay for their new bombs and bullets if we did that?

      January 26, 2014 at 12:04 am | Reply
    • Robert

      Do you know how many billions we spent when analog TV was phased out to ensure that everyone could afford switch to digital? Would you personally go to Rwanda and tell a women with a high-risk pregnancy that we can't help her clinic any more because the county that has spends billions to ensure that its people can watch TV can't afford it? Do you think perhaps screwed up PRIORITIES might be more to blame for our problems than the LESS THAN ONE PERCENT of our budget we spend on foreign aid. Oh, and if our federal government had another less-that-one-percent, do you think it would go to homeless veterans and education, or would it go to something just as silly as making sure everyone can watch TV?

      January 26, 2014 at 3:24 am | Reply
  4. JAL

    Snowden showing up at the Olympics. Funny or not funny?

    January 25, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      It would be great, but I am sure he would be in danger of being kidnaped by our CIA agents,

      January 26, 2014 at 12:02 am | Reply
      • Bob

        Aw, you're just getting our hopes up.

        January 26, 2014 at 1:13 am |
  5. G_Edwards

    "Zakaria: The myths of foreign aid"

    America HAS to spend money on foreign aid.


    January 25, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • Ted

      What isn't mentioned here is how much aid is provided from non-governmental American sources. I don't know what the numbers are but I believe that that is probably significantly greater than the aid provided by the government. Personally I think that that is appropriate. I get much more personal benefit from donating directly to wells or cataract surgery for the under primal ledges oversees than I would if that same money was taxed from me and given to the same purpose.

      January 26, 2014 at 2:52 am | Reply
      • Ted

        "...under-privileged...". Sorry about the typo. Stupid autocorrect 🙂

        January 26, 2014 at 2:55 am |
  6. Fish

    Foreign aid must be segregated into nutritional and other the other is too often lost to tyrants and politicians. As America has now been taken over by Wall Street and tyrants we have no recourse then resort to nothing!!! Thanks Tea Party!!!

    January 25, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  7. mark ducharme

    I've never heard any thing mr zahari has said that I believe in.

    January 25, 2014 at 8:01 pm | Reply
  8. Paul

    Any us foreign aide money is a waste! Why spend our us tax dollars overseas when we have millions of people here in the us starving, out of work,and just plain miserable?

    January 25, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Reply
  9. Steve

    Discuss what is often referred to as Foreign Aid, but in fact is used to promotes wars and conflicts

    January 25, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Reply
    • Quinton

      Well put, Steve. How true that is!

      January 27, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  10. Ruth

    We have been fighting poverty for 50 years and it is worse in the good old USA today then 50 years ago...you do the math......as children we gave to the Catholic Charity for foreign countries...we still do

    January 25, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Reply
    • McBob79

      I don't believe that's true. I think that there were higher poverty rates 50 years ago. Look it up.

      January 25, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Reply
      • thenakedpolitico

        not true...look it up,or just look at the piece cnn did 2 weeks ago,it showed a picture of pres. johnson with bone skinny farmers,now if you look at most welfare cases,they are all obese...the war on poverty is not working and will never work until they learn the simple fact that you can't just give people a glass of milk,you need to tell them how to milk the cow...

        January 26, 2014 at 1:48 am |
    • Keith

      No you are wrong, the war on poverty has been working. If the amounts available had not been hijacked by politicians to appease their rich donors it would still be making a difference. Attacking the poor is a favorite thing for politicians to do because they can't fight back.

      January 26, 2014 at 12:00 am | Reply
  11. McBob79

    To be clear. The U.S. has given more aid to the world than any other country in world history. A small amount of foreign aid annually is appropriate. The U.S. is the richest country on the planet.

    January 25, 2014 at 8:43 pm | Reply
  12. Schmoogalicious

    "Strategic aid" to Mobutu? This is apparently Zakaria's euphemism for "military aid". Military aid to foreign countries is pretty much always worse than a waste of money. Unfortunately, the US gives far more in military aid than it does aid that actually benefits someone (education, medical care, water treatment, etc).

    The biggest recipient of US aid - by far - is Israel, a country that has a standard of living on par with Belgium and other European countries. And what does Israel do with that aid? It finances its military occupation of Palestinian land. Israel demolishes Palestinian homes, confiscates Palestinian farmland, constructs Jewish-only colonies and roads on confiscated land, uses high-tech American weaponry to attack and suppress the civilian Palestinian population living under occupation, arrests and indefinitely detains Palestinian civilians without trial or charge, and provides protection to Jewish colonists who regularly attack Palestinians and vandalize their property.

    And Americans wonder why "they" hate us? Let's increase US aid to countries where it will go to good use, but let's end military aid to Israel immediately.

    January 25, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      Well said, thank you

      January 25, 2014 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  13. JAL

    Fleetwood Mac :p

    January 25, 2014 at 9:07 pm | Reply

    Furthermore, aid has often come with a price of its own for the developing nations:

    •Aid is often wasted on conditions that the recipient must use overpriced goods and services from donor countries
    •Most aid does not actually go to the poorest who would need it the most
    •Aid amounts are dwarfed by rich country protectionism that denies market access for poor country products, while rich nations use aid as a lever to open poor country markets to their products
    •Large projects or massive grand strategies often fail to help the vulnerable as money can often be embezzled away.

    January 25, 2014 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  15. skytag

    I don't support all forms of foreign aid, but Fareed is correct when he says Americans vastly over estimate what we spend on it. Foreign aid is just one more policy area about which the vast majority of Americans are profoundly ignorant.

    I did some research a few years ago and at that time we were spending about that same amount on foreign aid as Americans spend on pet food. So the idea that we can't afford to help anyone but ourselves simply doesn't fly with me. If we can afford to provide good lives for our dogs and cats we can afford to help some human beings in the world have water that's safe to drink, get life-saving vaccines, and have access to schools so they aren't stuck wallowing in poverty all their lives.

    January 25, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  16. Humanity4All

    Dear Fareed, Foreign Aid is a Strategic tool. We use it as we strategically see it necessary. Probably 70% of Aid goes waste and rest is targeted exactly for the reasons Mr Gates see it.

    January 25, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      No, most of it buys bombs and bullets from the American Military Industrial Complex

      January 25, 2014 at 11:55 pm | Reply
  17. BorisRoberts

    What's the problem with what we, as Americans, spend on pet food? I'm good to my dogs, that's for sure. I guess some will look down at that, since I'm not one to give much in the way of money (I'll volunteer my time, I'll donate unused clothes, and good fixtures that I replace, to Habitat for Humanity), but I'm also not the one having kids I can't feed. As some said before me, until we get our hunger and poverty and education problems under control, we need to get things handled here first.

    January 25, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      But you don't want to help the poor, you want them to do as you say so they can help themselves.

      January 25, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  18. mickinmd

    What should be added is that we spend 0.16% of GDP on foreign aid. The Scandinavian countries spend 1% or more. The UK, France, and Germany combined have 2/3 our population and 3/4 to 4/5 our average income. But the give twice as much in foreign aid as we do.

    We do, of course, spend a lot more on militarily protecting the free world, it's assets, and it trading partners.

    But we don't do much in terms of foreign aid per person.

    January 25, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      average income is meaningless, if you take out the top ten percent our wages are woefully behind all European countries.

      I do believe that we should give more, but America also sends more children to bed hungry than any western nation. Some attention must be brought to bear on our own social ills.

      January 25, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  19. Keith

    We could afford to do even more if we would quit calling bullets and bombs aid. They might not need quite so much help if we would quit bombing their houses and killing their children,

    January 25, 2014 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  20. M. Ozgoren

    The best foreign aid would be in the form of birth control. If you have 5-6 kids on average the country will stay poor forever.

    January 26, 2014 at 12:39 am | Reply
  21. thenakedpolitico


    January 26, 2014 at 1:34 am | Reply
  22. heroicslugtest

    Cut off all foreign aid with the exception of Commonwealth nations, NATO signatories, and Israel.

    Everyone else can suck a lemon. American dollars should be spent on America and our allies.

    January 26, 2014 at 1:59 am | Reply
  23. GunnerGA

    Foreign Aid to Israel provides the greatest return on investment of all recipients. nearly 90% of it is spent in the US creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, it save tens of billions in R&D costs, it saves hundreds of billions in regional military expenditures that would have to be added were Israel not able to defend herself from her belligerent neighbors – all but Egypt and Jordan remaining in a continual state of war. And given that due to the aid we give Israel, Israel is able to free up spending for domestic development (due to the neighborhood they live in, the constant nuclear threat Iran poses as well as daily missile attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza on civilian communities, Israel continues to operate on a wartime budget) so that their high tech and other technologies are allowed to flourish – technologies you and I use every day - like the Intel chips in your computer, cell phone technology, instant messaging, WAZE mapping app, drip irrigation, Flash drives, Iron Dome missile defense shield, and much more.

    In no other country does our aid recover ten fold what we put in. And Israel, because of this assistance, is able to send teams of first responders to areas afflicted by famine, hurricane and typhoons, earthquakes, etc... All thanks to the cooperation and assistance of the United States. And in no other country in the Middle East are Arab and Muslim citizens free to have the economic and political freedom they cannot get and yet desire in Arab and other Muslim countries. Israel is a light among nations. Only someone brainwashed into learning how to hate would dispute this. But as John Adams once said, "Facts are stubborn things!"

    January 26, 2014 at 2:14 am | Reply
  24. glenview0818

    This Zakaria has no idea what is going on, and will basically do anything to twist facts and figures to injure the US. Foreign aid for education and medicine, is great, but is a tiny percentage of the actual money flowing to corrupt governments and little of that money makes its way to the poor. This is what Zakaria does, takes a truth and misrepresents it, and every time it is damaging to the US. I think him and Pierce Morgan will do anything to discredit and damage the US, they both need to be fired from CNN.

    January 26, 2014 at 8:06 am | Reply
  25. JJ

    Charity begins at home; take care of the poor children in America first.
    I'm tired of seeing my hard earned money go to countries that hate us.

    January 26, 2014 at 8:25 am | Reply
  26. chrissy

    Totally agree @ Keith. I personally do not want my hard earned tax dollars being sent to other countries to be used for military action. For instance, billions of dollars to Israel so they can wage war on whatever country that is the mood of the moment. Or millions to Egypts military so they could overthrow their government. Expenditures such as they should actually be voted on by the US citizens. Simply because congress has their own agenda and it sure as he!! doesnt include the best interest of the citizens of the US. And im way past tired of them using my hard earned tax dollars to increase their personal wealth!

    January 26, 2014 at 11:55 am | Reply
  27. chrissy

    Oh and lets not forget the boatload of money that has been sent to the Syrian rebels so they could kill inocent people, including children. Not to mention the Syrian rebels are comprised of Al Queada which has killed many Americans on our turf! Shame on the people who knew yet still decided to send OUR money to them anyway!!

    January 26, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  28. Markas

    Let me cut to the chase: Every single living being deserves food, clothing, shelter and medical care before any single person deserves a second home, a luxury automobile, or a savings account in excess of a lifetime's expenses, period.

    January 27, 2014 at 5:43 am | Reply
  29. sly

    Americans – y'all are such hypocrites.

    95% of you favored spending $10 TRILLION to murder those 500,000 innocents Iraqi's.
    95% of you!

    You 95% should shut up about spending overseas. And YES, you 95% included ALL Confederates (Republicans), and most of you liberals.

    Stifle folks, and let us 5% with the brains to not invade Iraq run this nation. You've lost your credibility. You have none.

    January 27, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Reply
    • Person of Interest

      Pretty sure that anyone with a brain would not randomly pull 95% out of thin air. They would look to see that at no time was the American Public 95% for attacking Iraq. They would also be able to adequately desribe if they are an American or not. You stated that "Americans- y'all are such hypocrites" implying by the word y'all that you are not included as an American. Yet later you state that people like you should run the country. Which makes no sense.

      Your state is a tirade that doesn't make a lot of sense. Please next time take the 5 minutes to google "Iraq War Approval" and look that in 2001 52% of Americans approved of it and in 2005 60% of Americans DID NOT approve of it. You may have a brain but it certainly isn't an analytical one.

      January 27, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Reply
      • sly

        "A Gallup poll made on behalf of CNN and USA Today concluded that 79% of Americans thought the Iraq War was justified"

        Ok – not 95% (that was Congress), 79%. Not a whole lot lower, but now 21% of y'all Americans can be trusted to stand by their convictions.

        January 27, 2014 at 4:00 pm |
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