In 2019, the United States committed to at least US$47 billion in foreign aid obligations to more than 100 countries. The total value of US foreign aid in 2019 amounted to at least 23 percent of the absolute value of aid spending of all the 38 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is the intergovernmental club of the world’s richest constitutional democracies that uphold market economic principles. The US is the world’s largest state donor of foreign aid.
In recent decades, especially during the post-Cold War period (and with the exception of the presidency of Donald Trump from 2017-21), Washington has persistently legitimized its military and economic foreign aid by invoking its alleged interest in stimulating democratic governance, human rights and sustainable development in recipient countries.
That American legitimization narrative of human rights and democracy promotion vis-à-vis the actual record of aid outcomes in the Global South, however, suggests a different story. Most of the countries receiving US foreign aid have problematic human rights records, particularly in terms of physical integrity rights, defined as the right of each human being, children included, to autonomy and self-determination over their own body – a human person’s claim for dignity through the absence of state-inflicted violence such as extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and other forms of politically motivated physical and mental harassment.
According to US Agency for International Development (USAID) 2020 data, the top five recipients of American aid obligations for 2019 were Afghanistan (US$4.9 billion), Israel (US$3.3 billion), Jordan (US$1.7 billion), Egypt (US$1.5 billion) and Iraq (US$1 billion) – all countries in the Middle East. This list reflects an order in place for years.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries that were substantially destroyed by the US war on terror, enormous amounts of American post-war reconstruction finance have yet to generate lasting peace and stability. US military forces are pulling out of the former by the end of August, raising questions about the effectiveness of the two-decade-long mission. In Egypt, state agents under the administration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have used the cover of counterterrorism as they implement widespread torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances of civilian political dissidents. Meanwhile, Israel, the top recipient of US foreign aid since World War II, has been widely accused of the brutal and persistent violation of the physical integrity rights claims of Palestinians.
The situations in those countries reflect a broader global phenomenon, in which high amounts of American foreign aid correlate with widespread, state-initiated abuse of physical integrity rights in recipient countries that are highly dependent upon Washington’s patronage. Given the rhetoric of good governance and human rights promotion in post-Cold War American aid strategies, these questions beg for answers: Why does an increase in US foreign aid tend to coincide with a rise in abuses in recipient countries? Does foreign aid promote human rights abuse? If so, how?