Introduction

President Donald J. Trump has repeatedly called for deep cuts to foreign assistance programs, raising pointed questions about the role the United States should play around the world.

There has long been broad bipartisan agreement on the moral and strategic significance of foreign aid. Aid levels rose sharply after the 9/11 attacks, with policymakers seeing global economic development as a way to promote U.S. national security.

Though aid remains a small percentage of the overall U.S. budget, some politicians and economists have criticized the spending as ineffective. Others have urged the United States to expand its international aid commitments.

What is foreign aid?

The current foreign aid system was created by the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which attempted to streamline the government’s efforts to provide assistance around the world. The statute defines aid as “the unilateral transfers of U.S. resources by the U.S. Government to or for the benefit of foreign entities.” These resources include not just goods and funding, but also technical assistance, educational programming, health care, and other services. Recipients include foreign governments, including foreign militaries and security forces, as well as local businesses and charitable groups, international organizations such as the United Nations, and other nongovernmental organizations.

How much does the United States spend on it?

Given the many agencies, funding methods, and categories of aid associated with U.S. foreign assistance efforts, estimates can differ. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), which uses the broadest definition of aid[PDF], including military and security assistance, total spending was roughly $49 billion in 2016, the last full fiscal year analyzed. This accounts for about 1.2 percent of the federal budget.


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