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CGD in the News

How to Protect Foreign Aid? Improve It (New York Times)

March 15, 2011
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Nancy Birdsall and CGD's work on COD Aid was featured in a New York Times opinion column by Tina Rosenberg

From the Article

A Bloomberg National Poll says that more than 7 in 10 Americans think that Congress can find major savings in the federal budget by slashing foreign aid. It’s a new poll, but this is old news.

Americans want to help others, but they’re skeptical that foreign aid can do much good.

Americans have always vastly overestimated how much we spend on foreign aid. A 2010 survey asked Americans what percentage of the federal budget went to foreign aid. The median response was 25 percent. When asked what percentage would be appropriate, the answer was 10 percent. Polls going back at least a decade show similar responses. In fact, foreign aid accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

If Americans are asked whether they want to help bring health, water, education and other crucial resources to poor people around the world, they say yes, by overwhelming majorities. But Americans are skeptical that foreign aid accomplishes these things.

The truth is, much of foreign aid works. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are better off because wealthy countries pay to vaccinate children, dig wells, build roads and buy schoolbooks. But some foreign aid is wasted, stolen or spent on projects that don’t really help people.

The facts about foreign aid are crucial to drive home to the American public today, as the political debate over the budget has led many Republicans to single out foreign aid as a target for cuts. (Frank James, who writes a blog at NPR, suggests a novel way to spread the word, using Charlie Sheen’s Twitter account.)

But let’s talk about on-the-ground practical solutions, The Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank led by Nancy Birdsall, has an intriguing idea that might help. It could make some forms of foreign aid more effective, less corrupt and more responsive to what people need. And in doing so, it could capture more public support for something that improves, and often saves, the lives of millions.

The idea is called Cash on Delivery: instead of rich countries paying for all the little pieces that go into a poor country’s program, they pay only when something good comes out. Aid would get transferred when there are measurable, provable results.

Today, rich countries pay for what goes into a poor country’s program. Why not pay when something good comes out?

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