The US Has Long Been Unpopular in the Developing World

Jim Richardson, a former senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, recently reflected on U.S. foreign aid in an article in Foreign Policy, arguing that the United States is falling behind China in the foreign aid arena and losing the race for global influence with China. “The CCP succeeds in large part because it offers developing countries what they actually want. The United States, on the other hand, hamstrings itself because its foreign assistance often comes late and for the wrong thing.” This is a rare post-Cold War American self-criticism of its own foreign aid, reflecting that U.S. foreign development assistance practices have deviated from the original intent of global development governance and have long been unpopular in developing countries.

First of all, the United States has determined the root cause of poverty in developing countries to be the backwardness of the system, and there is major bias in its perception of development. During the Cold War, out of geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union, the U.S. injected large amounts of development funds into middle-ground regions such as Africa and helped African countries break away from the control of traditional colonial powers such as Britain and France to achieve national independence and development. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union made it unnecessary for the United States to make special efforts to win the support of developing countries. As a result, from the George H.W. Bush administration to the Clinton administration, the U.S. took an indifferent attitude toward Africa; even when genocide broke out in Rwanda, the U.S. was slow to intervene, leading to the tragedy of “hell on earth.”

The Clinton administration had to restart aid efforts in order to repair its international image, which was on thin ice, but without a clear development philosophy or implementable experience for other countries to follow. This led the U.S. to replicate the practice of the World Bank and other international organizations, which, when countries face repayment difficulties and balance-of-payments crises, often make “structural adjustments” a condition for lending governments to make reforms such as reduced spending, lower taxes, deregulation and privatization. For this reason, the United States has begun to emphasize institutional reform as the key to unlocking development. If a minister from a poor country asks U.S. diplomats or economists for advice on development, they are likely to give tedious sermons on human rights, fighting corruption, freedom of the press and other issues. Such advice does not address the pressing development problems of most low- and middle-income countries.

Second, the U.S. has overemphasized military intervention in the provision of humanitarian aid, and has been particularly simplistic and brutal in its development approach. Humanitarian assistance has been a key area of U.S. foreign aid, both to flaunt American values externally and to whitewash the country’s image. In January 2021, Joe Biden nominated former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power as the new administrator of USAID just before his official inauguration. Power, a political scientist by training, published a Pulitzer Prize-winning book based on her doctoral dissertation, “A Problem From Hell.” In the book, Power criticizes U.S. policy in response to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, and asserts that in the future the U.S. should deploy armed forces to combat human rights abuses.

If the United States is to launch a strong competition with China for influence over the rest of the world, the humanitarian aid arena is a more favorable battleground for the United States. This is because the U.S. is proud of its ability to deploy the U.S. military globally and be the first to intervene in areas where humanitarian disasters have erupted. But the arrogance of power has led the United States to ignore the root cause of the crisis — poverty and backwardness are the breeding ground for terrorism, and development is the only way to create peace. Military intervention only, without reconstruction, will inevitably lead to the failure of development, and it is easy to understand why Biden can still make the argument that “the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is not reconstruction” today.

In contrast, China, which the United States views as a rival, has taken an exploratory path to growth, expanding its infrastructure support to developing countries through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Some less developed countries have realized that China can bring them not only immediate economic improvements, but also long-term economic development. At the same time, China’s clear attitude of avoiding involvement in the domestic politics of recipient countries has gained due respect in its recipient countries.

Finally, the complexities of approving, procuring and evaluating U.S. foreign aid programs have given way to procedural justice in terms of development effectiveness. The U.S. has almost twice as many diplomats stationed around the world as China does, spends about 10 times as much on foreign aid, and contributes more than 20 times as much as China in the multilateral aid arena, with a huge disparity in aid effectiveness. In the case of African countries, for example, the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century were marked by very low and often still negative per capita growth rates. One important reason for this is that the U.S. foreign aid decision-making system is too large and incurs significant administrative costs to ensure procedural justice, and the ultimate bill payer can only be the recipient country. For example, the U.S. government procurement process for approving aid contracts and providing grants can take 18 months or more, not including the strategic planning and complex budget adjustments required for new programs, which can take years.

The Biden administration is currently working on the 2023 fiscal year budget request, which begins Oct. 1, 2022. Federal government departments and agencies will not begin using the funds appropriated by Congress for that budget until 2026, and any new programs funded by those funds may not begin until around 2030. In addition, several oversight committees have been established to oversee the use of the funds. Recipient countries have had to send officials to engage in intensive negotiations with these committees, resulting in a significant waste of administrative resources.

The author is executive deputy director and researcher of the Hongqiao International Economic Forum Research Center, Department of International Trade and Economic Affairs of the Ministry of Commerce.

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