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I think it may be good for a government to maintain a generalized foreign aid program, since non-military, non-humanitarian aid is an excellent channel for political-influence operations -- although we seem to do precious little of that these days.

The Emperor

How broad a meaning would you give the term "humanitarian aid"? I assume it would cover items like malaria bed nets. But would it include building a hospital or primary school? How about training doctors, nurse and teachers?

And what do you think about building "green" energy sources like offshore wind farms? Or new airports and roads?


Private charities may be effective at delivering the aid services needed by various countries--but probably not so much as Pf. Becker may believe. The information market for charities is still in its nascency and as yet (other than perhaps a few ambitious websites) there is no truly effective way of verifying charitable effectiveness the way a shareholder may, for example, research into a public company. The net effect is that most charities are run abysmally, with unaccountable management who is more likely to waste money (and thereby contribute to the aid problem described herein) than to add any value.

Partly due to this effect, charities tend to flock towards those causes which have most effectively been "marketed" (witness the incredible number of charities devoted to AIDS prevention in South Africa). This too poses a dilemma--for if the recipient has several competing suppliers of charity to choose from, there is also no guarantee that they will put any charitable aid to good use. Add to that the fact that the combined actions of many charities can simply undermine the effectiveness of gov't/business policies as well as prove to be yet one more source of guaranteed "welfare" payments and the case is far from certain that private charities are any more affective at instituting growth than govt-sponsored aid.

William Tanksley

I'm surprised that no commenter has pointed out that the avowed purpose of government foreign aid, at least in the US, is to further US foreign policy. In general there's no motive for massive, unified "charity" except influencing another government -- and in general it's hard to justify foreign aid constitutionally except in terms of how it helps foreign policy.

So discussing only whether foreign aid helps or hurts the people to whom it's given is (perhaps bizzarely) beside the point; the real question is whether it efficiently accomplishes the purpose for which it is intended, whether there are more efficient means to that end, and (of course) whether the foreign policy being enforced is worth enforcing by ANY means.

Political Umpire

Africa's plight stems from two main sources, one internal and one external: (i) corrupt governance, and (ii) trade barriers. Aid doesn't help either, and in fact as Posner argued may in fact further both.

Then again, civilised people do not stand by and watch others starve, even if they are starving by their own government's hand. I therefore would not object to _direct_ aid, namely that such as Oxfam which does not deal with governments but rather has its own operations on the ground, as it were.

Secondly, aid in the form of education (funding of schools, supply of teachers, etc) can only help all of Africa's problems including overpopulation (by education concerning contraception), poverty (by enabling Africans to gain marketable skills) and corruption (a better educated populace is harder for corrupt leaders to deceive).

As to the interests of the US, I would have thought that a more prosperous, less corrupt and less warring Africa would certainly be in the interests of the US - and everyone else.


As pointed out previously, foreign aid is only nominally for 'development' purposes, but really used as a foreign policy tool. Given that purpose, we have to take it as a given and banning it is not an option. The alternative is for recipients to refuse all foreign aid or for them to attach conditionalities to accepting IDA. This is what India as moved to, accepting aid only from 4-5 donors.

In such a case, perhaps someone should be developing guidelines on effectiveness from the recipients perspective, not the donors. For instance, the WB may add real value to development issues by advising poor countries on what conditionalities to impose on donor countries - rather than the other way around?

Political Umpire

Without wishing to be pedantic, I am left wondering what "conditionalities" might be. Presumably "conditions", unless the redundant "ities" is a term of art. Rather like saying "burglarise" rather than "burgle".

Alex Forshaw

Foreign aid is nothing more than a safety net for kleptocratic dictators, unless it is accompanied by force to ensure that the aid is distributed in the intended way.

Even a kleptocrat wants tax revenues, and if you choke your tax base to death, there's no more kleptocracy.

And if the foreign aid is effective, it just forestalls necessary change. Face it, desperation is by far the most effective catalyst for change. It's terrible to watch, but the alternative is perpetuating an even less "civilized" status quo.


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