US Foreign Aid: There's Been NO Accountability in How It's Spent

Recently, some members of Congress reintroduced a bill, the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATA), that if passed will attempt to make U.S. poverty and economic assistance to foreign countries more efficient and effective. In the past, USAID was unable to account for funds that were intended to support Iraqi minority groups. If enacted, perhaps FATA will successfully improve a system that fails to ensure that funds are used for the intended purpose. As it stands presently, the distribution of U.S. foreign aid lacks a coherent policy and remains problematic.

The Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi has renewed public discussion regarding U.S. foreign aid. Politicians, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) , and commentators have called for the suspension of U.S. assistance to Egypt, characterizing the events as a military coup and expressing concern over the ongoing violence. Some cite the Foreign Assistance Act which states that no aid can be given to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état.” However, the law fails to account for or restrict assistance to governments with autocratic leaders. Where were the calls to revoke military aid when former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was imprisoning, torturing, and killing his detractors? The White House has skirted the issue by refusing to take sides or call the removal of President Morsi a military coup, so for now U.S. assistance will continue to flow to Egypt.

The problems with U.S. foreign aid go far beyond transparency and accountability. The consistently flawed foreign policies of successive administrations are the true culprit preventing aid from helping people of struggling nations. U.S. aid, economic and military, has historically been given to countries with questionable human rights records, that restrict freedom of speech, and are ruled by dictators or despotic monarchies. Too often, the military aid provided in the region only helps to keep tyrannical governments in place and is turned against a recipient’s own people or the civilians of neighboring countries. There is no accountability, let alone concern, for how weapons provided to these countries are used.

The U.S. provides $3 to $4 billion in aid to Israel annually, mostly in the form of military assistance. This aid is frequently used in actions that generate civilian casualties. A good example of this was the way in which Israeli forces were able to operate during the 2006 Lebanon War. In a heavy-handed response to border skirmishes with Hezbollah, the Israeli government opted to mete out collective punishment on Lebanon. Vowing to bomb the country back to the stone age, Israel targeted Lebanese civilian areas and infrastructure. Over the 33-day conflict, Human Rights Watch reported that the damage inflicted by Israel resulted in at least 1,109 deaths (mostly civilian), 4,399 wounded, and the displacement of approximately one million people. The story repeats itself with Israeli actions against Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Despite these actions, American military aid continues to flow unabated.

In the case of Egypt, the question of continued military and economic aid is intertwined with U.S. support for Israel, acting as an incentive to maintain the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. In a compelling article, Stephen Walt eloquently explains that the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt provides an opportunity for the U.S. to end the “unjustified” military aid to Egypt and Israel, and improve U.S. policy in the region that has been “too supportive of an expansionist Israel and too supportive of unpopular Arab dictatorships.” However, as Walt argues, it is unlikely that the U.S. will apply reason to foreign policy and its allocation of military assistance in the Middle East, or elsewhere, anytime soon.