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Myths about USAID and foreign aid

Written By | May 9, 2015

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD., May 7, 2015 – Americans are woefully misinformed about not only foreign aid but also the role of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Americans generally estimate US foreign aid at 10% or more or our Federal budget. They also probably believe that this aid is mostly in food, shelter, governance, education and medical assistance. The United States does provide assistance in all those fields; however, this assistance is a footnote to overall foreign aid.

During the Vietnam War, the USAID had over 3,000 employees in country. Today, the total number of employees of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID or just AID) is around 2,400, and only about 1,300 are Foreign Service Officers. USAID was folded into the State Department in the last decade.

Before the integration with the State Department, USAID was independent, although officers worked under the auspices of the US Embassy in whichever location they were assigned. It is logical to assume that any independence they had in the past has been lost after the USAID came under the direct control of the State Department.

The truth about our foreign aid

  1. The budget for international aid in the US is less than 1% of our budget. While it is still sizable, it compares unfavorably to the aid provided by other countries. In 2013 and 2014, our international aid budget (non-military) was about $23 Billion. Military aid was about $14 Billion. The countries receiving the most aid include Afghanistan, Egypt and Israel.
  2. Since the number of direct hires for USAID is small, the Agency depends heavily on contractors. These contractors come from both for profit and not-for-profit organizations. That cuts heavily into the USAID budget. Contractors like Haliburton and Chemonics lead the way in profiting at the rate of hundreds of millions from these contracts. As a former Federal employee on loan to USAID in the decade of 1990, I witnessed how the main objective of “aid” is directing large amount of funds to American corporations. In 2014, USAID contracted for $3.8 Billion, 94% of them with US firms. The Commercial Attaché of any Embassy can explain that the main aim of the organization is to support US firms.
  3. USAID has very little control of these contractors. Contracts in the US government are in many cases loosely managed by the Feds. There is also little to no oversight, especially when a particular project is run by faith-based concerns. The award of project/grants/contracts to faith based organizations has been a very strong objective of Republicans when they are in control of the White House and/or the National Legislature.
  4. Many of the projects run by USAID contractors and inter-agency agreements with other Federal Agencies include governance, AIDS prevention and abatement, gender issues, agricultural and technical assistance. Putting technical assistance at the end is not an accident. “Technical Assistance” includes the conveyance of technical knowledge that someone in the US could be selling. All it takes is for a pressure group, like consulting engineers for example, complaining to the legislature or the While House that they are losing work as a result of technical assistance to a country, for the assistance to stop. The project that I worked on giving technical assistance related to pollution prevention was scrapped as soon as the Republicans took over the House in the mid-1990s. Our team of engineers was replaced by lawyers and administrators. In this case, it meant that countries that were getting assistance on safe water and preventing pollution were  instead provided assistance with governance, gender issues and health issues (as long as they don’t include family planning). One could argue that providing basic needs like potable water and sewage treatment to prevent disease should have been a better choice.
  5. Many of the projects that USAID funds internationally are in the lingo of the agency “Green Projects.” These include biodiversity protection, agricultural and erosion prevention and other ecological issues. These projects are very difficult to oversee and it is equally difficult to determine their benefit. How would you know if efforts in saving a specific butterfly have been effective? One of the few clear examples of success is the preservation of the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, but this is the exception. While these projects have some positive impact on the country and the world as a whole, it does not provide the prompt assistance that is needed by most countries. USAID has stayed away from projects that would have a more immediate impact on the population of the receiving country. Water treatment, sewage treatment, waste disposal and the like make life in urban centers better. Besides the intrinsic benefits, people that are relatively happy in an urban center do not venture into pristine environments to destroy flora and fauna. A notable example is the hundreds of millions given to Egypt for sewage treatment; however, the results have been less than optimum.
  6. US corporations have a big advantage related to bio-engineering of agricultural products. These products are peddled to aid receiving countries mercilessly. If you want to end your career at USAID prematurely, talk about Franken-foods.

All this said, working internationally for USAID is a great experience. Professional US workers are received very well in most foreign countries and given expert status. Knowing the agency’s culture makes you realize that one can take the good with the bad with a positive balance.

For most of its existence, USAID was a non-political agency, attempting to provide assistance wherever it was needed internationally. Unfortunately, by making it part of the State Department, it has almost certainly become a much more political agency.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, knows that his stint at USAID was his best professional job. He is in Twitter (@chibcharus), LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook (Mario Salazar).



Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering. Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change. He will also try to convey his joy of being old.