The Politics of Foreign Aid


4-15-06, 9:03 am

Last week the Senate confirmed Randall Tobias as the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice also appointed Mr. Tobias to serve as the Director of Foreign Assistance, a newly created position that will oversee $19 billion in foreign aid. USAID has operated independently from the State Department’s political and military concerns for more than 40 years. But with the confirmation of Mr. Tobias, foreign aid will almost certainly become victim to the whims of the Bush administration.   In 1961 Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act, which mandated the separation of foreign assistance programs into military and non-military aid. President Kennedy established USAID to administer foreign economic assistance programs. USAID was the first federal foreign assistance agency to focus on long-term economic and social development. It was created to offer direct aid to the developing nations of the world, without interference from the State Department.   But in recent months the Bush administration has openly expressed frustration that USAID has been able to operate independent of the State Department’s goals and objectives. Secretary Rice criticized the agency in January for not coordinating its efforts with that of the U.S. military and diplomats. In a meeting earlier this year with USAID officials, Secretary Rice announced that the administration’s national security interests would determine the agency’s antipoverty efforts. Of course, this is contrary to the very creation of USAID, which was intended to be an agency free from politics.   Given that the administration now clearly intends to politicize foreign aid, it’s no surprise that Randall Tobias was selected for this task. Since 2001, Mr. Tobias has served as the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and the administrator of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Under his leadership, PEPFAR has become so heavily influenced by conservative politics that it is increasingly ineffective at responding to the international AIDS pandemic. America’s foreign aid programs will almost certainly suffer the same fate.   PEPFAR was plagued by poor politics and questionable ethics under Mr. Tobias’ command. Conservative religious politics has had undue influence over PEPFAR almost since its inception. Fully one-third of the international funds spent on AIDS prevention programs, an estimated $130 million, can only be spent promoting abstinence before marriage and cannot be used to address condom usage or safer sex. This policy has had a devastating effect on Africa.   Many African nations receiving U.S. funds have stopped distributing condoms to the general public and now only supply them to particular demographic groups. Two U.S. contractors that previously supplied condoms to young people in Africa are now only promoting abstinence programs. An AIDS education magazine popular with young Ugandans that previously advocated abstinence and condom usage now does not even reference safer sex.   In Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania 55 to 71 percent of those aged 15 to 24 are already sexually active, according to the Center for Health and Gender Equality. Yet they receive no information on safer sex methods. In other sub-Saharan African nations AIDS is increasing most rapidly among married women, demonstrating that the policy of abstinence before marriage AIDS prevention programs are essentially meaningless.   In fact, last week the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative office of Congress, released a report extremely critical of PEPFAR’s promotion of abstinence before marriage programs. The report found that the requirement mandating one-third of funding be spent on abstinence programs “limit their efforts to design prevention programs that are integrated and responsive to local prevention needs.” According to the report, some African nations have “reduced or cut funding for certain prevention programs” in order to meet the requirement.    In 2003 Mr. Tobias gave a speech in which he said that condoms were not effective in preventing AIDS. Of course, this was patently absurd as it was contrary to every scientific study published in the last 30 years. Later that year, while speaking at the World AIDS Conference, Mr. Tobias changed course and stated that both abstinence and condom usage could be effective in preventing the disease. But by then, the damage was done. His speech prompted the government of Uganda, one of the African nations with the highest rates of HIV infections, to declare that condoms were no longer appropriate for use.   Last summer, Mr. Tobias first attempted to politicize USAID when PEPFAR announced that American organizations that receive federal funding must sign a pledge opposing prostitution. This new policy limited almost $2.2 billion in federal funding distributed by USAID. The policy makes it far less likely that prostitutes will interact with an organization if they believe it has contempt for them. Consequently, these organizations will have less of a chance to communicate with and educate prostitutes about AIDS prevention.   With the confirmation of Randall Tobias to lead USAID, its 45-year history of independence from the political whims of presidents is over. Whereas foreign aid was previously administered on largely humanitarian grounds, it will now be subject to the conservative politics of the Bush administration. Foreign aid will likely be doled out only to those nations who are our military allies, instead of USAID’s longstanding tradition of distributing aid based on need. In the process, America’s deteriorating foreign relations will only worsen. 

--Gene C. Gerard taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years at a number of colleges in the Southwest and am a contributing author to the forthcoming book Americans at War, by Greenwood Press. I write a political blog for the world news website OrbStandard at .