More Clarity Needed in Foreign Aid

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How much justice can money buy? And how much influence? Governments make these calculations all the time.

In the case of the United States, less than 1% of its total spending in 2022 went to diplomacy and development aid to help foreign nations to see things our way. In terms of dollars, that was about $50 billion in foreign aid to nearly 200 countries in 2021.

America seeks to leverage its behemoth economic power to influence nations. For example, the U.S. and its Western allies have imposed crippling sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, on Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons and on North Korea for flaunting its nuclear weapons. But success has been modest.


American success in efforts to encourage change is often hampered by a lack of clear standards, consistency in application and the absence of metrics by which to measure results. Egypt is a prime example.

Egypt was a Soviet ally until President Anwar Sadat switched sides after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He threw in his lot with America and the West and, in what now seems like short order, made peace with Israel in 1979 and won back the Sinai Peninsula from his Israeli peace partner. But the most populous and powerful Arab country is also a military dictatorship that needs to project that strength and prestige and guard against political collapse.

For decades, the U.S. has earmarked $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. Taking note of the country’s abysmal human rights record — arbitrary detentions, travel bans, targeting of media and harassment of civil society, to name a few — Congress in 2020 mandated that $300 million of military aid be withheld until Egypt makes improvements in human rights. The Biden administration has never withheld the full amount.

So last week, 11 Senate Democrats (including Maryland’s Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and Virginia’s Tim Kaine) wrote to Secretary of State Tony Blinken and urged the administration to withhold the full designated portion, now raised to $320 million.

The senators argued that Egypt’s human rights record “has continued to deteriorate, despite the Egyptian government’s claims to the contrary.” At the same time, the senators acknowledged the “mutual security concerns that merit the sustainment of our military-to-military relationship,” while asserting that withholding the $320 million would not damage bilateral relations.

Given congressional direction regarding Egypt’s aid package the senators’ urgings make sense. But the lack of clear guidance in the withholding process and some measures by which to determine when withholding is no longer necessary makes implementation difficult. Even more disturbing is the fact that the withholding of funds thus far does not seem to have had any effect on Egypt’s behavior.

U.S. efforts to leverage foreign and military aid as a means to encourage recipient nations to honor fundamental human rights are praiseworthy. But if the effort is worthwhile — and it is — the demand for improvement must include some measure of verifiable performance which should help encourage better behavior.

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