Is Anyone Listening? Does US Foreign Assistance Target People’s Top Priorities? - Working Paper 348

December 02, 2013


The United States government has made repeated declarations over the last decade to align its assistance programs behind developing countries’ priorities. By utilizing public attitude surveys for 42 African and Latin American countries, this paper examines how well the US has implemented this guiding principle. Building upon the Quality of Official Development Assistance Assessment (QuODA) approach, I identify what people cite most frequently as the ‘most pressing problems’ facing their nations and then measure the percentage of US assistance commitments that are directed towards addressing them. By focusing on public surveys over time, this analysis attempts to provide a more nuanced and targeted examination of whether US portfolios are addressing what people care the most about. As reference points, I compare US alignment trends with the two regional multilateral development banks (MDBs) – the African Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Overall, this analysis suggests that US assistance may be only modestly aligned with what people in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America cite as their nation’s most pressing problems. By comparison, the African Development Bank – which is majority-led by regional member nations – performs significantly better than the United States. Like the United States, however, the Inter-American Development Bank demonstrates a low relative level of support for people’s top concerns.
The paper concludes with a number of policy questions, which should be considered if the US government plans to concertedly pursue closer alignment with local concerns and priorities. These include whether the US government should: (1) require regular citizen surveys to help formulate foreign assistance strategies and programmatic priorities; (2) recalibrate health assistance programs in Sub-Saharan Africa; (3) increase support for the African Development Bank; (4) expand under-utilized private sector-based development tools, such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; (5) increase its engagement in select Latin American countries to help combat crime and insecurity; (6) better leverage the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is the only U.S. development institution with an explicit mandate to support country-based priorities; and (7) expand support for USAID’s under-resourced economic growth programs, such as the Development Credit Authority.

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