Selfish, Yet Altruistic: The Case for Aiding Developing Countries

Oct 26, 2017

The work of the United Nations is honored at this time each year with United Nations week. Despite a speech by President Donald Trump to the UN General Assembly last month, the place of the United States in the global political sphere is tenuous. Foreign aid and the State Department have been in the cross-hairs when it comes to cuts to the federal budget.

And, that could mean significant shifts in the United States relationship with the developing world. Steve Radelet, a professor and director of the Global Human Development Program at Georgetown University, says that would be problematic.

"These improvements in countries around the world, in health and in income levels... are helping to bring more capable states and governments that are quite helpful to us."

He says there are many reasons why it benefits the United States to provide aid for developing countries, but one of the most important might be the effects it has on national security. By providing financial and structural aid, the U.S. has been able to gain key allies in many parts of the developing world.

"These improvements in countries around the world, in health and in income levels - there's also been a big shift to democracy... are helping to bring more capable states and governments that are quite helpful to us," Radelet explains. "If we want to enhance our own security around the world we need to be able to work with capable governments and states." 

And while this aid can have great benefits for the U.S., it has faced pushback from the general public and politicians. Radelet says that much of this pushback is based on fundamental misconceptions about how much the U.S. spends on this type of aid. 

"Americans believe that we spend something like between 10% and 20% of the federal budget on foreign aid. And in fact we spend less than 1% of the federal budget."

"There are many, many surveys that are taken, that Americans believe that we spend something like between 10% and 20% of the federal budget on foreign aid. And in fact we spend less than 1% of the federal budget. It's a tiny share of our budget that we contribute to fighting poverty and hunger and disease around the world."

Radelet continues, "So the amount is a mistake and the other mistake is that people believe it has no impact, that it doesn't work, that it's not saving lives and it's not helping with food security and fighting hunger." 

While he admits there are many people still suffering around the world, he believes the issue of poverty in developing countries is often framed in a way that belies the progress that has happened. 

"The story that we ought to be telling is, actually for the last 25 years, there has been more progress in fighting poverty in developing countries than ever before in human history, by a long shot - and it’s an enormous amount of progress."