Crunching Obama’s Numbers: Inflating the Reality of America’s Global Assistance


obama chicago.jpg
Barack Obama has perhaps unintentionally overstated both his targets and the current realities of America’s global aid assistance in his recent foreign policy speech.
He then calls for a doubling of a fictionalized amount of current American aid to an annual outlay of $50 billion/year.
Obama stated in his major foreign policy remarks:

Delivering on these universal aspirations requires basic sustenance like food and clean water; medicine and shelter. It also requires a society that is supported by the pillars of a sustainable democracy — a strong legislature, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, a free press, and an honest police force. It requires building the capacity of the world’s weakest states and providing them what they need to reduce poverty, build healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth. And it requires states that have the capacity to fight terrorism, halt the proliferation of deadly weapons, and build the health care infrastructure needed to prevent and treat such deadly diseases as HIV/AIDS and malaria.
As President, I will double our annual investments in meeting these challenges to $50 billion by 2012 [emphasis added] and ensure that those new resources are directed towards these strategic goals.
For the last twenty years, U.S. foreign aid funding has done little more than keep pace with inflation. Doubling our foreign assistance spending by 2012 will help meet the challenge laid out by Tony Blair at the 2005 G-8 conference at Gleneagles, and it will help push the rest of the developed world to invest in security and opportunity. As we have seen recently with large increases in funding for our AIDS programs, we have the capacity to make sure this funding makes a real difference.

I like Obama’s intent — and his worthy goals — but it’s important not to brush over or white-wash the real starting point of the aid dollars that Obama wants to increase.
If we give Obama’s number crunchers the benefit of the doubt on the $25 billion level of current assistance the US is providing, there are only a few potential explanations for these numbers.
Most sources peg American poverty-focused development assistance at $16.7 billion. The OECD bumps this to $22.7 billion because the OECD includes a few non-recurring major debt relief packages in Iraq and Afghanistan — while most of the professionals in this field do not count debt relief as normalized poverty assistance.
Obama may be defining foreign assistance in broad terms which merges aid and debt relief — including funding that includes non-proliferation efforts, “GWOT” related efforts, etc. (but this is not customary in any way among professionals who work in the foreign assistance arena). Alternatively, Obama may just rounding up for political effect.
If Obama targeted $35 billion in real global poverty assistance, then he’d be developing what was ‘real’ rather than imagined in America’s aid budget.
To provide some further context for current budget levels, these numbers may be helpful:

FY 2007
International Affairs Budget (includes poverty aid and diplomacy)

$32.6 billion

Poverty-Focused Development Assistance

$16.7 billion (according to
$22.7 billion (according to OECD – includes debt cancellation in Iraq and Afghanistan)

Defense Budget (for comparison)

$447.4 billion

FY 2008
International Affairs Budget (includes poverty aid and diplomacy)

$36.5 to $39.8 billion

Poverty-Focused Development Assistance

$19 billion request (according to

Defense Budget (for comparison)

$623.5 billion

Barack Obama hit many high notes in his speech, but in the area where America is running far behind where it should be — particularly in its public diplomacy and global assistance programs — he has to get the numbers right.
We need to do more in my view, but to call for doing even more yet we need an unsentimental and unvarnished picture of where we are today.
— Steve Clemons


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