US foreign aid continues to disregard recipient priorities (and its own rhetoric)

Ben Leo, senior fellow at Center for Global Development was on their Global Prosperity Wonkcast (is it just me or is that name kind of embarrassing to say) this week discussing a new working paper called ¨Is anyone listening?¨

From the abstract:

The United States government has made repeated declarations over the last decade to align its assistance programs behind developing countries’ priorities. By utilizing public attitude surveys for 42 African and Latin American countries, this paper examines how well the US has implemented this guiding principle….

By focusing on public surveys over time, this analysis attempts to provide a more nuanced and targeted examination of whether US portfolios are addressing what people care the most about. As reference points, I compare US alignment trends with the two regional multilateral development banks (MDBs) – the African Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Overall, this analysis suggests that US assistance may be only modestly aligned with what people in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America cite as their nation’s most pressing problems. By comparison, the African Development Bank – which is majority-led by regional member nations – performs significantly better than the United States. Like the United States, however, the Inter-American Development Bank demonstrates a low relative level of support for people’s top concerns.

If you ask a development worker where aid should go, they will probably say health and education. Except for a handful of countries, these are not a priority according to the Afrobarometer and Latinobarometer surveys. In sub-Saharan Africa, the top three priorities over the past decade are 1) jobs/income, 2) infrastructure and 3) economic and financial policies. In Latin America, the priorities are 1) crime and security, 2) jobs/income and 3) economic and financial policies. In the interview, Leo says that most officials he spoke with had never even heard of any of these surveys (even though they are funded by USAID). And despite repeated pledges (the Rome Declaration, the Paris Declaration, the Accra Agenda) to better target aid to meet the priorities of recipients, the US has continued to allocate aid in a way that doesn’t align with host country desires.

In the eleven African countries surveyed, on average less than a third (26%) of assistance has been directed towards the top three priorities. The African Development bank, on the other hand, allocated 48% of its portfolio to the top three priorities and 70% to the top five concerns (the US gets 56% for the top five).

Of the 18 countries in Latin America surveyed, 37% of aid has been directed at the top three priorities over the past decade. However, in 2011 (the most recent year for the survey) the US has improved, with 51% of aid going to crime and security concerns—separate from military aid. The Inter-American Development bank actually performs worse than US assistance, but I’d argue that is because the IDB does not focus much of its efforts on crime and security.

Leo recognizes that there are a number of political decisions that go into aid allocation. In the interview he mentioned two: it is increasingly difficult to imagine the US giving aid for infrastructure in Africa given the current state of its own infrastructure. The other reason is entrenched interests. The whole aid industry is built up largely around health and education which makes it increasingly difficult to shift priorities.

The paper concludes with some recommendations/questions that are worth asking:

(1) require regular citizen surveys to help formulate foreign assistance strategies and programmatic priorities; (2) recalibrate health assistance programs in Sub-Saharan Africa; (3) increase support for the African Development Bank; (4) expand under-utilized private sector-based development tools, such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; (5) increase its engagement in select Latin American countries to help combat crime and insecurity; (6) better leverage the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is the only U.S. development institution with an explicit mandate to support country-based priorities; and (7) expand support for USAID’s under-resourced economic growth programs, such as the Development Credit Authority.

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