Is Anyone Listening? US Foreign Aid (Mis)Alignment – Benjamin Leo

December 03, 2013

My guest on this week’s Global Prosperity Wonkcast is CGD senior fellow and director of the Rethinking US Development Policy program Ben Leo, here to discuss his new CGD working paper, Is Anyone Listening?  in which he examines how well US foreign assistance aligns with the priorities of people in recipient countries. Answer: not so much or, as Ben puts it more diplomatically: “the alignment is modest at best.”

“It depends on the country, it depends on the region, but there are some major African and Latin American countries where very little of US assistance focuses on what people care most about,” Ben says. Like I said, not so much.

“This project has been kicking around in my mind for quite a while,” Ben explains. It began with discussions about the appropriate post-2015 development goals to follow on the Millennium Development Goals.

“I’d be asked, ‘what do you think the next MDGs should be?’ And I’d always say, ‘it doesn’t matter what I think. Ask ordinary people what they care most about and let’s have that be the working basis for the new goals.’”

“And whenever I’d say that people would respond, ‘well, they’re going to say health and education.’”

Ben thought this might not be the case. Using public attitude survey data from Afrobarometer and Latinobarometer he analyzed what people identify as their top priorities by country and region. Surprise: overwhelmingly the top concerns of people in both Africa and Latin America are jobs and the economy, along with infrastructure in Africa and crime in Latin America. US assistance, meanwhile, goes mostly for health and education, issues that rarely score as top priorities (see chart in Ben’s blog post.

So I ask Ben: “Why doesn’t US assistance align better with what people in Africa and Latin America say they want?”

After noting that the answer is complex, Ben offers a couple of possible explanations that focus on US politics and constituencies rather than the needs in recipient countries. We go on to explore a range of related issues, including whether or not recipient citizen concerns should influence US foreign assistance allocations and even whether or not aid actually does any good. We end with Ben’s common sense recommendations about how to shift US foreign aid so that it is better aligned with the priorities of citizens in recipient countries.

To learn more, read his paper  or tune into our conversation.

You can follow Ben Leo on Twitter at @Leo_Benjamin. You can follow me at @LMacDonaldDC and CGD at @CGDev


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.