The Aid-Corruption Paradox: How Should the U.S. Allocate Foreign Aid?

The United States spends about $34 billion annually on foreign aid, frequently to countries that have abysmal corruption track records (see the exact allocations here). Although a portion of that money, almost $6 billion, goes to humanitarian aid, the remainder is intended for development purposes. There has been a great deal of discussion about whether the United States should continue giving this aid, exemplified by the debate between Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly: Professor Sachs argues that the West can eliminate African poverty if it increases the amount of aid, while Professor Easterly insists that foreign aid thus far has not only been ineffective, but has actually caused greater harm to aid-receiving countries, in part due to corruption. Easterly-like skepticism of foreign aid due to corruption (a topic that has been discussed previously on this blog) seems to have permeated public opinion, resulting in what has been labeled “aid fatigue.” Such fatigue endangers the foreign aid system, as taxpayer support is necessary if the U.S. hopes to continue or increase its aid programs.

Unfortunately, choosing to withhold aid from corrupt countries altogether would be to deny aid from the majority of the world’s poorest countries. Corruption and poverty are correlated, resulting in an “aid-corruption paradox”: often the countries that are in the greatest need of foreign aid also have extremely corrupt governments. Thus there will inevitably be a trade-off when giving development aid: either we will be ignoring the countries in greatest need, or we will give to those countries but accept that a portion of the funds may not serve their intended purposes. How then should countries such as the United States determine where to allocate their development aid? Continue reading