What you should know about US foreign assistance
Last month, President Barack Obama's administration announced an eye-popping $38 billion security assistance deal with the Israelis, to be disbursed over 10 years starting in 2019. That caught many off-guard. It seemed like a lot of money. But looking into the deal, and others like it, we began to realize how little we knew about the U.S. government's assistance budget, which ranges from programs combating HIV/AIDS to those directly funding other nations' armed forces.
Using the State Department's request to Congress for a 2017 budget, we compiled what we thought was a comprehensive look at the U.S. foreign assistance budget. That budget request is a complex stew of programmatic acronyms, thickened by confounding numerical overlaps and an endless roster of government agencies.
In response, numerous representatives of those same agencies, as well as academics and analysts, got in touch. "You guys are on the right track," they said, "but there's much more to this than you've got here."
A tiny fraction of the entire federal budget is devoted to foreign assistance - just about 1 percent. Most Americans vastly overestimate this number in surveys. In a Kaiser Family Foundation study published in early 2015, the average respondent thought that 26 percent of the federal budget went to foreign aid. Unsurprisingly, more than half the respondents thought the United States was spending too much on foreign aid.
We have laid out where the $42.4 billion will go in 2017. The money comes from the State and Defense departments and a slew of other agencies. But it would be wrong to think that "security assistance" comes entirely from the DoD. Security assistance is a broader term than so-called military aid because this financial support is often extended to other types of security forces such as anti-narcotic or trafficking units.
Actually, only about half the security assistance budget is provided by the DoD. That mostly derives from programs directly tied to military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, such as the Afghan Security Forces Fund and the Iraq Train and Equip Fund. Deals like last month's with Israel, on the other hand, come from the State Department. In that case, the U.S. government is essentially financing Israel's military purchases. Under the current agreement, Israel can spend 26 percent of that money on military equipment produced in Israel, but the new deal, which starts in 2019, gradually phases out that stipulation. Then, like every other country, Israel will have to spend all the assistance money on American defense contractors. In other words, U.S. foreign military financing is essentially a way of subsidizing its domestic defense industry while strengthening the military capabilities of its strategic allies.
Economic and development assistance is almost entirely provided through the State Department's budget. This includes the budgets for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Peace Corps, reserve funds for disaster relief, funds geared toward specific objectives, such as preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and bilateral economic assistance packages.
This economic and development assistance cartogram, which is a fancy word for a map specifically geared toward a comparative display of statistics, shows American aid spread out among more than 100 countriesand therefore vaguely resembles a normal map.
Seven African countries feature among the top-10 recipients of economic assistance. Most of the money given to those countries is funneled toward health initiatives, particularly HIV/AIDS treatment and research. The biggest recipient, however, is Afghanistan, where the United States is hoping to win over hearts and minds with all kinds of development assistance after 15 years of military quagmire there.
As opposed to the broad dispersal of economic development funds, the security assistance cartogram demonstrates the targeted nature of the American national military strategy. A swath of countries from Egypt to Pakistan - excluding Iran, of course - receive the vast majority of U.S. security assistance.
The biggest individual, non-bilateral program in the security assistance budget is the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF). The DoD describes the program thusly: "For DoD to provide assistance to the security forces of Afghanistan to include the provision of equipment, supplies, services, training, facility and infrastructure repair, renovation and construction, and funding."
Security Assistance Monitor, the nonprofit organization that provided much of the data on which this article is based, says on its website that the ASFF's ultimate goal "is to produce an independent, self-sufficient armed forces for Afghanistan."
The security assistance budget also includes "train and equip funds" for allied forces in Iraq and Syria. Those funds go toward the Iraqi army, as well as Kurdish peshmerga troops and other militias the U.S. cooperates with in both countries in its push against the Islamic State.
Israel and Egypt are the biggest recipients of U.S. military financing. Israel receives about $3.1 billion in annual financing currently, and that number will increase to $3.8 billion after 2017. Egypt has received major financing ever since it agreed to an American-brokered peace with Israel in the Camp David Accords of 1978.
But if the U.S. assistance budget demonstrates where the American government has strategic interest, then where are some of our biggest allies on the cartograms? Saudi Arabia, NATO members, Japan, South Korea and India are all conspicuously absent.
The answer is that those countries simply buy arms from the United States rather than receive large-scale assistance. Many have their own established defense programs. U.S. arms deliveries worldwide for 2015 amounted to $21.9 billion.
The United States sells arms to nations that surround its main adversaries, China and Russia, as well as to countries playing active roles in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, which includes most of the Gulf states.
The massive scale of assistance the United States provides to nations around the world is a reflection of its ubiquitous presence on the world stage, and the sheer size of its economy. The United States provides far more assistance than any other country in the world, and in terms of arms sales, it controls at least half the global market.
However, the United States gives less as a percentage of its gross national income than other countries. U.N. resolutions have set 0.7 percent of GNI as an unofficial benchmark that developed countries should contribute to foreign assistance. According to 2015 OECD statistics, the United States contributes about 0.17 percent of its GNI, below the 0.3 percent that is the average for developed nations. Only six countries, all in Europe, have reached the U.N. benchmark: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden. Sweden stands out, contributing almost 1.4 percent of its GNI to foreign assistance.