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US Emergency/Dev. Aid Comes with Strings Attached

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Jan. 10, 2005

U.S. Emergency and Development Aid Comes with Many Strings Attached

Interview with Tom Barry, policy director of Foreign Policy in Focus, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:

In response to the tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean that has claimed more than 140,000 lives, President Bush initially announced that the U.S. would contribute $15 million to the relief effort. But, after worldwide criticism of what many viewed as a meager amount, the U.S. contribution quickly climbed to $35 million and then $350 million. The money will come from the budget of the Agency for International Development, or USAID, as well as other accounts.

As of Jan. 3, the Bush administration had declined to request additional money from Congress as the funds will come from existing accounts. But there is growing concern that this could deplete funds earmarked for victims of future natural disasters, war or famine. Additionally, it's not uncommon that the announcement of a generous donation makes headlines, but the follow-through is weak or non-existent. Although Japan has contributed $500 million to aid in the tsunami disaster, exceeding the U.S. commitment by $150 million, President Bush can rightfully claim that the U.S. donates more total dollars than any other country to worldwide humanitarian relief. But it's also true that the U.S. is the stingiest of all developed nations in the charitable aid it provides annually as a percentage of its gross domestic product.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Tom Barry, policy director of Foreign Policy in Focus, which is a joint project of the Institute for Policy Studies and the International Relations Center. He discusses the substantial political and economic strings attached to U.S. foreign aid, and alternative policies that could enhance the nation's true security needs.

TOM BARRY: Oftentimes the U.S. promises economic aid as a result of public pressure, for example, promises to combat the AIDS crisis in Africa. Historically, these promises of aid, what they’ve hidden are the U.S. economic ties, that aid has been tied to the sale of U.S. products, that two-thirds or three-fourths of U.S. economic aid is tied to the sale of U.S. products. More recently, the restrictions on U.S. aid have been tied to political purposes, that the governments must be in accord with U.S. national security strategy. And this is quite striking in recent documents from USAID, that the lead sentences now refer to the U.S. national security, that U.S. economic aid must correspond to U.S. national security purposes, as well as historically the U.S. national interests, which have been defined more economically.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What are the differences between emergency aid and long-term development aid?

TOM BARRY: Long-term development aid has consistently, since the early ’90s, been declining, because the U.S. has switched development aid into more security aid. We see on the graphs that we are now down, in terms of total economic aid, to the levels of the height of the Cold War in 1982. Emergency aid is separate from development aid, it’s more discretional, and it’s generally been used for U.S. food aid and some logistical aid. But U.S. development aid has not only declined, but, despite the rhetoric of the USAID -- that it’s for broad economic development, it’s very restricted to providing support for privatization programs, structural adjustment programs -- and if these countries not only do not apply these programs, they will not receive the aid, but they now also have to be in accord with U.S. national security strategy. It’s interesting -- even in the strategic plan that you would have never seen this before, that the lead word is “security, democracy, prosperity” -- that U.S. aid has changed since its origins, that it would have been “prosperity” first, “prosperity” leading certainly, with an intent to increase U.S. national security interests around the world, but not leading with security – security being an end result. Security is now the principle determinant of how U.S. aid is spent. If a country does not agree with U.S. war on terrorism, it does not receive aid.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Tom Barry, where is this $350 million going to come from within the budget?

TOM BARRY: There’s a fund for humanitarian assistance and emergency assistance and it’ll be drawn from this fund. My understanding of it is that it won’t be all dollars, that it will be in materials as well. The striking thing as you mentioned about the $350 million -- which is certainly not corresponding to the need in the region -- is that it went from a low promise initially to this much higher figure because of public pressure. And in my opinion, the U.S. national security and national interest would be well-served by a much higher figure rather than where economic aid is now directed – to the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, where the bulk of U.S. economic aid is being directed, even in terms of national security, of building support, for example, in a country like Indonesia or Sri Lanka, of building support among a Muslim population to have a clear expression – and that would not be only in terms of the dollar amount, but the symbolism of President Bush traveling to the region, which he has declined to do.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So does emergency aid have to meet the same criteria as development aid under U.S. AID guidelines?

TOM BARRY: Yes, in its strategic plan it says there are more humanitarian crises than we can deal with, we need to look at what is in our strategic interest, and that we need to prioritize areas of humanitarian crises or failed states, that may affect U.S. national security. A word that now permeates USAID documents is effectiveness, and effectiveness means not just does aid help people, but does aid further U.S. national security and U.S. national interest -- that has never been so closely defined, so if there is a humanitarian crisis that is regarded as outside of U.S. national security interests, that would receive a lower priority.

Tom Barry is policy director of Foreign Policy in Focus and co-author of "The Soft War, The Uses and Abuses of U.S. Economic Aid." For more information, call (505) 388-0208 or visit the group's website at

Related links: "Is the U.S. Stingy?" by Jim Lobe,, Jan. 4, 2005


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Jan. 7, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.



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