How U.S. AID Offers a Guide to Good Government and American Exceptionalism

The mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development (US-AID) is “to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.” At $22.7 billion annually, US-AID’s foreign operations funding is not insignificant. Our attention to that figure matters for two reasons. First, the U.S. deficit and debt threaten America’s existence. We must carefully assess what each government agency is spending and whether that spending is necessary. Second, most government agencies (the Defense Department, for example) are notoriously unreliable in spending taxpayer money responsibly.

US-AID, however, bucks that trend. Via two interactive webpages, US-AID is showing Americans great detail about where their money is being spent. In doing so, US-AID exemplifies the union between good government at home and American exceptionalism abroad.

Consider US-AID’s “Explorer” webpage. The page offers numerous user interface options, but the best is its aid trends feature. Listing every nation where U.S. government development agencies have spent money between 1946 and 2015, the site offers a trek into history. All sums are listed in constant dollars and broken down year-by-year into specific U.S. government agencies. For example, click on the U.K. and you’ll see that the U.S. spent more than $33 billion in that country in 1947, but has given nearly no aid since 1960. It reflects the U.S. effort to rebuild Europe after World War II, and bolster Europe’s economic recovery.

Clicking on Brazil, you’ll see U.S. spending peaked in 1964 at $2.2 billion. And diving into the details, you’ll learn that $1.274 billion of that total was spent by US-AID, and $892 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In India, you’ll see how the United States spent at least $2 billion a year between 1959 and 1971, and then spent around $200 million annually until 2002. That funding reflects the success of American taxpayers and U.S. development efforts to help India become the growing economic superpower it is today.

These are just three examples, but the Explorer page offers accounts from every nation in which the U.S. government has ever spent aid money. Want to know how much the U.S. spent in Botswana in 1979? Easy. Two clicks will show you a total of $48 million — including $8 million from the U.S. Defense Department and $3.5 million from the Peace Corps. Be under no illusions, these statistics are tangible proof of American exceptionalism. To those who say Americans do not care about foreigners, this webpage is the forensic rebuke.

Still, for those more interested in recent, sector-specific aid efforts, US-AID’s “Dollars to Results” page is the place to go. It offers the chance to study US-AID efforts by sectors including democracy and governance, environment, health, education and economic development. In Malawi, for example, you can see how in 2015 the priority sector for US-AID was health care, to the tune of $67 million. Conversely, $2.4 million was spent in Malawi on democracy and governance during the same period. Or in the Palestinian territories, you can see how, out of a 2015 total expenditure of $337.9 million, education spending was at the top with $161 million. In Indonesia, however, you’ll see how expenditures were spread relatively evenly between the education, environment, and health sectors.

Yet the data goes even deeper. Clicking on any of the sector tabs on each nation’s page, you’ll be able to learn the specific areas of that sector in which U.S. tax dollars were spent. In Kosovo’s education sector, for example, you’ll see that out of a 2015 education spending total of $4.1 million, $3.9 million went to college-level education efforts and only $200,000 went to basic education.

Offering great detail about where taxpayer money is spent, these datasets empower us to hold our government to account. Thus, via its appreciation for the public money US-AID shows its respect for good governance at home as well as abroad. That’s also shown by the agency’s publication of 40 outside vendors that receive US-AID funding.

Ultimately, this transparency also illustrates US-AID’s courage. Consider that in Congress, committee staffers from different political persuasions will likely use this data to force reforms into particular programs. By their nature, government agencies dislike reform, but by its interactive pages, US-AID is accepting that reform may be the price of accountability. There are few better or bolder examples of good governance in America today.

Nevertheless, US-AID’s datasets also raise some questions. For one, consider the agency’s 2017 budget request for $195.5 million to support the “Global Development Lab and the Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL) Bureau.” The agency explains, “Funding for PPL will strengthen USAID’s central evaluation capacity and policy development. Funding for the Lab will enable USAID to source, develop, and scale breakthrough solutions; accelerate the transformation of the U.S. development enterprise by leveraging additional outside resources; and improve the sustainability of development interventions by attracting private-sector, market-driven resources.”

To me, that indecipherable language reeks of a funding request for vague bureaucratic operations. It should raise eyebrows. At the same time, while US-AID’s 2017 budget request seeks funding for many well planned programs, including $470 million to address the underlying causes of illegal immigration from Central America to the United States, other proposals seem overly politicized.

Consider the $376 million proposal for improved electricity infrastructure in Africa. That sounds fine, but the detail outlines that the electricity sourcing will focus on green energy sources, which are far more than expensive than traditional sources. Surely the key should be ensuring Africa has a better power grid, not a green energy legacy project for President Obama.

As Opportunity Lives has explained, when employed wisely, aid funds can serve both humanity and the American people. And US-AID certainly leads the world. The impact of its efforts is as broad as it is beneficent. US-AID’s anti-hunger program, Feed the Future, has reduced “stunting by 14.4% in areas of Bangladesh from 2011–2014; by 21% in areas of Cambodia from 2010–2014; by 25% in areas of Kenya from 2008–2014; and by 33% nationally in Ghana from 2008–2014.”

As I say, US-AID illustrates American exceptionalism and exceptional governance.

Tom Rogan is a foreign policy columnist for National Review, a domestic policy columnist for Opportunity Lives, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.