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


7 comments on “Crunching Obama’s Numbers: Inflating the Reality of America’s Global Assistance

  1. Denis McDonough says:

    Senator Obama appears simply to have referred to the amount the President requested in the last two fiscal years for the Foreign Operations Account, which covers all of the investments you referred to in your post and which Senator Obama referred to in his speech. Check here (
    and here ( for the request numbers from the President. Having requested about nearly $24 billion for FY07 and just over $26 billion for FY08, it is more than fair for Senator Obama to assert that the baseline for his future plans in this important account is $25 billion.
    Why take an average of the two fiscal years? Because at the moment we are in the midst of FY07 but Congress is beginning to debate the President’s FY08 request.
    Why focus on what the President requested and not what the Congress enacted? Because Republicans were in charge of the Congress last year and they never even enacted Foreign Ops for FY07, forcing Democrats to clean up their mess earlier this year and enact what is called a long term continuing resolution. Discerning exactly what we are spending in this account this year will therefore be difficult and will not be an accurate reflection of the baseline of spending over the last several years.
    So, when making a point about the US budget in his speech Senator Obama stuck to using US budget documents. That’s straightforward.


  2. Ben says:

    I take it that Defense budget doesn’t include funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, funded as they are by “supplemental” spending requests?
    With these included, doesn’t the total approach $1 trillion?


  3. Carroll says:

    Posted by Zathras at April 25, 2007 05:18 PM
    That sums it up I think.


  4. Zathras says:

    There’s a little more to this than getting the numbers right.
    American foreign aid and public diplomacy programs started to be dismantled almost as soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated, a process that was very far along by the time Bill Clinton left office. To revitalize either would require rebuilding institutions and personnel resources, not just writing checks.
    Sen. Obama delivered a speech designed to impress people who do not follow foreign policy closely with the idea that he is not a blank slate on foreign policy. The campaign-oriented press corps will buy this, and so will a lot of party activists. That won’t change the fact that Obama is campaigning to be the third foreign policy novice in a row to occupy the Oval Office.


  5. Carroll says:

    Flying by the seat of his pants is what comes to mind on Obama.


  6. Carroll says:

    Obama or whoever writes for him doesn’t do their homework it seems to me. He may be a great guy with a heart of gold and good intentions but he just doesn’t strike me as the detailed workaholic and thinker the next president will have to be to get us out of our mess.


  7. JohnH says:

    To get that “unsentimental and unvarnished picture of where we are today,” we need to determine how much of that aid actually reaches the people it is supposedly intended to help. Decimating the largely parasitic, Western contractor and consultant class would dramatically increase the effectiveness of foreign aid. Removing the requirement that products and services be bought from Western companies at exhorbitant prices would also increase effectiveness. But then who would be left to lobby for foreign “aid?”


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