Photo of group of refugees gathered by a car and standing with bags of their items

Yemen’s civil war: Food aid arrives for displaced people in January. Khaled Ziad/Afp Via Getty Images

Should the U.S. Continue Giving Billions in Foreign Aid?

 Last year, the United States spent $44 billion on foreign aid. The money was used to respond to crises and natural disasters in 64 countries, with Ukraine the largest recipient of American aid in 2022. And in December, Congress approved a 6 percent increase for foreign aid as part of the 2023 federal budget—the first time in six years that foreign-aid funding has increased. But many Americans have long had mixed feelings about spending taxpayer money on projects in other nations.


Two experts—a researcher from an organization that promotes international development and a retired scholar from a conservative Washington think tank—square off about whether providing billions of dollars in foreign aid is good for the nation.  

Foreign aid makes up a tiny fraction of the U.S. budget. For every dollar the government collects in federal taxes, less than one penny goes to help people in developing nations. But that investment in things like vaccines, basic nutrition, and helping rebuild after natural disasters has had a big impact. In the past 25 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has dropped by two-thirds, and U.S. aid helped make this a reality.

The money we spend overseas not only helps those in far-off places, it also has benefits here at home. The Covid-19 pandemic showed us that transmissible diseases do not respect national borders. Fighting disease outbreaks in poor countries also helps prevent those diseases from spreading across our own borders. And U.S. efforts have gotten results. A U.S. program to fight the AIDS epidemic globally has saved more than 20 million lives since 2000 and prevented nearly 2 million babies from being born with H.I.V.

Providing foreign aid reflects American values and benefits us at home.

In addition, foreign aid boosts the U.S. economy and protects our national security. By helping people in poorer countries, we’re encouraging people to see Americans as allies rather than enemies—and ultimately as potential business partners. In fact, in 2015, American businesses sold 51 percent of their products to customers in developing countries. South Korea, once an impoverished country and a recipient of U.S. aid, is now one of America’s largest export markets.

Providing aid to those who need it also fundamentally reflects our American values. We are a nation of compassion and of problem solvers. And despite all the progress made in the past few decades, the world still has enormous problems. The effects of climate change are threatening to erode hard-won gains on poverty reduction globally. Smart U.S. foreign aid can help manage that and other emerging threats. Foreign aid can help make the world a safer and more prosperous place, and we should continue investing in it.



Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

Since the end of World War II, generations of American taxpayers have watched their government spend well over $3 trillion on foreign aid. But most aid projects have failed to solve the long-term problems of poverty and bad governance, and they will never be able to succeed.

The biggest problem with foreign aid is that it often goes to countries that have troubled histories and deeply entrenched problems. In many of these countries, the most basic functions of government are totally unreliable. For example, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Haiti have received billions in U.S. aid in recent years but remain corrupt, unstable, or undemocratic.

 Too often, foreign aid actually reinforces these problems, making it harder for countries to fight corruption and establish more-democratic institutions. That’s because foreign aid can help corrupt regimes remain in power by giving them money and good-paying jobs for them to hand out as perks.

Foreign aid often reinforces corruption and undemocratic institutions.

Sometimes when unscrupulous regimes receive American aid to fight against corruption in their governments, they steal some of the funds and also use them to target their political enemies. In recent years, we’ve seen this happening in South Sudan.

USAID, the agency that distributes the bulk of American foreign aid, was set up in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War. Back then, foreign aid was a key weapon in the battle with the Soviet Union for the “hearts and minds” of people in developing countries. But that era is over, and the rationale for official government aid is gone. Now Communist China is our greatest rival, so we must prioritize scarce taxpayer funds to rebuild U.S. military and economic strength for that challenge.

The goal of American foreign aid agencies should not be an unending and quixotic attempt to save the world but rather to put themselves out of business by helping countries to succeed on their own. Significant cuts should start now and continue until foreign aid can be phased out.


Former Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

TOP U.S. Aid Recipients (2022)

1. Ukraine

$8.9 billion

2. Yemen

$1.3 billion

3. Ethiopia

$1.2 billion

4. South Sudan 

$919 million

5. Afghanistan 

$861 million

Source: U.S. Agency for International Development

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