The United States does not do foreign aid well. This includes bilateral development assistance as well as subsidies to multilateral efforts, including contributions to international organizations that are more in the nature of dues than aid. The problem is not new. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the biggest influence on the size and shape of U.S. foreign aid was Representative Otto Passman, a Louisiana Democrat who chaired the House appropriations subcommittee that covered the subject. Passman never met a foreign aid program he liked, and his consistent approach to the subject was to cut, cut and cut some more. Such Congressional treatment, coupled with a broader American public dislike for aid programs and for international organizations, firmly established the United States as the Scrooge of the West. In a calculation by the Congressional Research Service a few years ago, of all the aid donors of Europe and North America plus Japan and Australia (22 nations in all), the United States ranked second to last (above only Italy) in overseas development assistance as a percentage of gross national income (GNI). Even the now teetering-on-default Greece ranked higher. The highest country on the list, Norway, spent 0.87 percent of GNI on development assistance; the United States spent 0.18 percent. Otto Passman is no longer with us, but U.S. aid is now facing more substantial cuts.
There are different legitimate views about both the economic and the political efficacy of overseas development assistance, centered particularly on issues of how much the benefits go to broader populations in the countries concerned as opposed to elites. It would be worth discussing how better to shape incentives through carefully designed conditions attached to aid. The Millennium Challenge Corporation created by the George W. Bush administration had some of the right ideas. But the most conspicuous conditions imposed by the U.S. Congress have nothing to do with political or economic betterment and instead lots to do with the pathologies of U.S. politics. There has been the insertion of anti-abortion dogma, for example, even in family-planning programs that don't do abortions anyway. And then there is the manipulation of aid and contributions to international organizations as another manifestation of Congress's thralldom to Israel.
Israel itself, the largest recipient of all forms of U.S. aid combined, enjoys its $3 billion annually without the slightest whiff of conditions despite behavior that has been highly troublesome to U.S. interests, including the continued colonization of disputed territory that makes the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever more distant. Meanwhile, there is an aid-slashing uproar on Capitol Hill about the far smaller assistance given to the Palestinian Authority, just because the Palestinian leadership had the temerity to ask for multilateral reaffirmation at the United Nations of what supposedly is a goal shared by the United States and Israel and a central purpose of what passes for a Middle East peace process—namely, Palestinian statehood.
That aid-slashing fulmination is now extending beyond assistance to the Palestinians themselves to include financial support to international organizations that have had anything positive to say about that goal. On Wednesday the executive board of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization approved by a vote of 40-4 full membership for the Palestinians. Afterward an unnamed official of the Obama administration made the strange comment that “We do not believe that the objective we all have—two states, Palestine and Israel—can be achieved through a culture and science organization in Paris.” Who ever said it could? Now there is scurrying to see whether existing legislation that was targeted against the Palestinians, or still more legislation that has been introduced, will mandate a cutoff of U.S. financial support to UNESCO. Yes, sir, ending assistance to the cultural and scientific projects of UNESCO certainly will advance the cause of peace in the Middle East, won't it?
The Israeli ambassador to UNESCO said, “We hope and pray that the UNESCO authorities will realize—and the Palestinians will realize—that there is a very high price to be paid, in American participation in UNESCO.” So Israel is brandishing the threat of the United States not participating in an international organization. Incredible. And humiliating for the United States.