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Global Politics and Strategy
Volume 61, 2019 - Issue 6
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Policy and Politics in the United States

How to Win Friends and Influence Development: Optimising US Foreign Assistance

Pages 99-114
Published online: 19 Nov 2019


A new foreign-aid concept that promotes development while substantially preserving geostrategic alignments is needed.


The author is grateful for feedback from the reviewers as well as from Laia Balcells, Daniel Byman, Diana Kim, Charles King, Matthew Kroenig, Robert Lieber, Elena Silva, Lahra Smith and Greg Zarow.


1 See Glenn Thrush, ‘Trump Embraces Foreign Aid to Counter China’s Global Influence’, New York Times, 16 October 2018,

2 See Shayerah Ilias Akhtar and Marian L. Lawson, ‘BUILD Act: Frequently Asked Questions About the New U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’, Congressional Research Service, 15 January 2019,

3 See Todd Moss and Ben Leo, ‘Development Without New Money? A Proposal for a Consolidated U.S. Development Bank’, Center for Global Development, 6 April 2011, For a summary of how the policy evolved, see Adva Saldinger, ‘How Policy Wonks, Politicos, and a Conservative Republican Remade US Aid’, Devex, 5 December 2018,

4 As President Trump put it in a speech to the UN General Assembly ten days before signing the BUILD Act into law: ‘We will examine … whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart. Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.’ The White House, ‘Remarks by President Trump to the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly’, 25 September 2018, For a seminal account of the joint effect of domestic and international factors on foreign policy, see Helen V. Milner and Dustin H. Tingley, Sailing the Water’s Edge: The Domestic Politics of American Foreign Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

5 For a review of the evidence, see Desha Girod, ‘The Political Economy of Aid Conditionality’, in James A. Caporaso (ed.), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); and Joseph Wright and Matthew S. Winters, ‘The Politics of Effective Foreign Aid’, Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 13, 2010, pp. 61–80. See also Thad Dunning, ‘Conditioning the Effects of Aid: Cold War Politics, Donor Credibility, and Democracy in Africa’, International Organization, vol. 58, no. 2, Spring 2004, pp. 409–23; Daniel Yuichi Kono and Gabriella R. Montinola, ‘Does Foreign Aid Support Autocrats, Democrats, or Both?’, Journal of Politics, vol. 71, no. 2, April 2009, pp. 704–18; David H. Bearce and Daniel C. Tirone, ‘Foreign Aid Effectiveness and the Strategic Goals of Donor Governments’, Journal of Politics, vol. 72, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 837–51; Camelia Minoiu and Sanjay G. Reddy, ‘Development Aid and Economic Growth: A Positive Long-run Relation’, Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, vol. 50, no. 1, February 2010, pp. 27–39; James Raymond Vreeland and Axel Dreher, The Political Economy of the United Nations Security Council: Money and Influence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Sarah Blodgett Bermeo, ‘Aid Is Not Oil: Donor Utility, Heterogeneous Aid, and the Aid–Democratization Relationship’, International Organization, vol. 70, no. 1, Winter 2016, pp. 1–32; and Allison Carnegie and Nikolay Marinov, ‘Foreign Aid, Human Rights, and Democracy Promotion: Evidence from a Natural Experiment’, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 61, no. 3, July 2017, pp. 671–83.

6 On military occupations, see David M. Edelstein, Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

7 Hans Morgenthau, ‘A Political Theory of Foreign Aid’, American Political Science Review, vol. 56, no. 2, June 1962, pp. 301–9. See also Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, ‘Leader Survival, Revolutions, and the Nature of Government Finance’, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 54, no. 4, October 2010, pp. 936–50.

8 On the evolution of performance metrics in democracy aid, see Sarah Sunn Bush, The Taming of Democracy Assistance: Why Democracy Promotion Does Not Confront Dictators (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

9 Desha M. Girod, Explaining Post-Conflict Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

10 All values in this article are in constant 2017 US dollars. OECD, ‘International Development Statistics’, 2019,

11 World Bank, ‘World Development Indicators’, 2012,

12 See Jeffrey Herbst, ‘Let Them Fail: State Failure in Theory and Practice’, in Robert I. Rotberg (ed.), When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Jeremy M. Weinstein, ‘Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective’, Center for Global Development, 5 April 2005,; Pierre Englebert and Denis M. Tull, ‘Postconflict Reconstruction in Africa: Flawed Ideas about Failed States’, International Security, vol. 32, no. 4, Spring 2008, pp. 106–39; David Lake, The Statebuilder’s Dilemma: On the Limits of Foreign Intervention (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016); Stephen D. Krasner, ‘Sharing Sovereignty: New Institutions for Collapsed and Failing States’, International Security, vol. 29, no. 2, Fall 2004, pp. 85–120; James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, ‘Neotrusteeship and the Problem of Weak States’, International Security, vol. 28, no. 4, Spring 2004, pp. 5–43; and Stephen D. Krasner, ‘Autocracies Failed and Unfailed: Limited Strategies for State Building’, Atlantic Council Strategy Papers, March 2016,

13 Robert Harrison Wagner, ‘What Was Bipolarity?’, International Organization, vol. 47, no. 1, Winter 1993, pp. 77–106.

14 Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, ‘Economic Backwardness in Political Perspective’, American Political Science Review, vol. 100, no. 1, February 2006, pp. 115–31. See also Bueno de Mesquita and Smith, ‘Leader Survival, Revolutions, and the Nature of Government Finance’. Sarah Bermeo found that the results from Bueno de Mesquita and Smith are valid during the Cold War, and not during the post-Cold War period. See Bermeo, ‘Aid Is Not Oil’.

15 Desha M. Girod and Jennifer L. Tobin, ‘Take the Money and Run: The Determinants of Compliance with Aid Agreements’, International Organization, vol. 70, no. 1, Winter 2016, pp. 209–39.

16 For a detailed discussion of these dynamics in Mozambique and Uganda, see Girod, Explaining Post-Conflict Reconstruction. On the influence of aid on recipient behaviour across sectors, see Burcu Savun and Daniel C. Tirone, ‘Foreign Aid, Democratization, and Civil Conflict: How Does Democracy Aid Affect Civil Conflict?’, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 55, no. 2, April 2011, pp. 233–46; Susan D. Hyde, The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma: Why Election Observation Became an International Norm (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011); Daniela Donno, Defending Democratic Norms: International Actors and the Politics of Electoral Misconduct (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Aila M. Matanock, Electing Peace: From Civil Conflict to Political Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

17 See Bearce and Tirone, ‘Foreign Aid Effectiveness and the Strategic Goals of Donor Governments’, pp. 841, 846; and Girod and Tobin, ‘Take the Money and Run’.

18 John S. Saul, ‘Mozambique: The Failure of Socialism?’, Transformation, 14 January 1991, p. 106.

19 OECD, ‘International Development Statistics’; Chukwuma Obidegwu, ‘Rwanda: The Search for Post-Conflict Socio-Economic Change, 1995–2001’, World Bank, Africa Region Working Paper Series, 12 November 2003, pp. 39–40.

20 Obidegwu, ‘Rwanda: The Search for Post-Conflict Socio-Economic Change, 1995–2001’, p. 39.

21 See Terry Lynn Karl, ‘El Salvador’s Negotiated Revolution’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 71, no. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 147–64; and United Nations Development Program, ‘Assessment of Development Results: Guatemala’, 2009. See also Graciana Del Castillo, ‘Post-Conflict Reconstruction and the Challenge to International Organizations: The Case of El Salvador’, World Development, vol. 29, no. 12, December 2001, pp. 1,967–85; William Stanley and David Holiday, ‘Peace Mission Strategy and Domestic Actors: United Nations Mediation, Verification, and Institution Building in El Salvador’, International Peacekeeping, vol. 4, no. 2, June 1997, pp. 22–49; Elisabeth Jean Wood, ‘An Insurgent Path to Democracy: Popular Mobilization, Economic Interests, and Regime Transition in South Africa and El Salvador’, Comparative Political Studies, vol. 34, no. 8, October 2001, pp. 862–88; and World Bank, ‘Guatemala Poverty Assessment: Good Performance at Low Levels’, 2009.

22 On the effect of 9/11 on US foreign policy, see Chester A. Crocker, ‘A Dubious Template for US Foreign Policy’, Survival, vol. 47, no. 1, Spring 2005, pp. 51–70.

23 See Girod, Explaining Post-Conflict Reconstruction, Chapter Six.

24 OECD, ‘International Development Statistics’.

25 ‘Uganda: President Museveni Shows Signs of Backsliding’, New Times, 8 July 2005; Andrew Mwenda, ‘Foreign Aid and the Weakening of Democratic Accountability in Uganda’, Foreign Policy Briefing, CATO Institute, 12 July 2006.

26 Desha M. Girod, Stephen D. Krasner and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, ‘Governance and Foreign Assistance: The Imperfect Translation of Ideas into Outcomes’, in Amichai Magen, Michael A. McFaul and Thomas Risse (eds), Promoting Democracy and the Rule of Law: American and European Strategies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 61–92.

27 Ibid.

28 Lake, The Statebuilder’s Dilemma.

29 Helene Cooper, ‘In Leaning on Karzai, U.S. Has Limited Leverage’, New York Times, 12 November 2009, See also Christoph Zürcher et al., Costly Democracy: Peacebuilding and Democratization after War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

30 Michael Crowley, ‘Obama and the Dictators: “We Caved”’, Politico, February 2016,

31 See Girod, Explaining Post-Conflict Reconstruction, Chapters Five and Seven.

32 Rod Nordland, ‘Saudi Arabia Promises to Aid Egypt’s Regime’, New York Times, 19 August 2013,

33 Weinstein, ‘Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective’.

34 Simone Dietrich, ‘Bypass or Engage? Explaining Donor Delivery Tactics in Foreign Aid Allocation’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 4, December 2013, pp. 698–712.

35 Daniel Egel et al., Investing in the Fight: Assessing the Use of the Commander’s Emergency Response Program in Afghanistan (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016).

36 Ibid.

37 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, ‘Afghanistan’s Road Infrastructure: Sustainment Challenges and Lack of Repairs Put U.S. Investment at Risk’, Audit Report, October 2016,

38 Ernesto Londoño, ‘Demise of Iraqi Water Park Illustrates Limitations, Abuse of U.S. Funding Program’, Washington Post, 3 January 2011,

39 See Timothy D. Gatlin, ‘Commander’s Emergency Response Program’, Arthur D. Simons Center for Interagency Cooperation, p. 11,; and Joanna Spear, ‘The Militarization of United States Foreign Aid’, in Stephen Brown and Jörn Grävingholt (eds), The Securitization of Foreign Aid (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 18–41.

40 See Lake, The Statebuilder’s Dilemma.

41 For an overview, see Howard White, Radhika Menon and Hugh Waddington, ‘Community-Driven Development: Does It Build Social Cohesion or Infrastructure? A Mixed-Method Evidence Synthesis’, Technical Report, International Institute for Impact Evaluation (3ie), New Delhi, 2018, See also Eli Berman and Aila Matanock, ‘The Empiricists’ Insurgency’, Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 18, 2015, pp. 443–64. For example, a community-development programme administered by the Philippines central government with funding from the World Bank was attacked by insurgents while in its early stages. This programme, rolled out in 4,000 villages across the 184 poorest municipalities in the Philippines between 2003 and 2008, was designed to improve infrastructure, social cohesion, governance and civic participation. Presumably, insurgents anticipated that the programme would garner support for the government. See Benjamin Crost, Joseph Felter and Patrick B. Johnston, ‘Aid Under Fire: Development Projects and Civil Conflict’, American Economic Review, vol. 104, no. 6, June 2014, pp. 1,833–56.

42 For examples, see Thomas Risse, Tanja A. Börzel and Anke Draude, The Oxford Handbook of Governance and Limited Statehood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

43 USAID Economic Analysis and Data Services, ‘U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants (Greenbook)’, 8 June 2018,

44 On ‘good enough governance’, see Stephen D. Krasner, ‘Autocracies Failed and Unfailed: Limited Strategies for State Building’, Atlantic Council Strategy Papers, Atlantic Council, March 2016,

45 Quoted in Winifred Tate, ‘Human Rights Law and Military Aid Delivery: A Case Study of the Leahy Law’, Political and Legal Anthropology Review, vol. 34, no. 2, November 2011, p. 347. On the incentives to comply with human-rights agreements, see, for example, Beth A. Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, Laurence R. Helfer and Christopher J. Fariss, ‘Emergency and Escape: Explaining Derogations from Human Rights Treaties’, International Organization, vol. 65, no. 4, October 2011, pp. 673–707.

46 For a nuanced view of Chinese assistance, see Haley J. Swedlund, ‘Is China Eroding the Bargaining Power of Traditional Donors in Africa?’, International Affairs, vol. 93, no. 2, March 2017, pp. 389–408.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Desha Girod

Desha Girod is an associate professor in the Department of Government and Director of the MA in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. She is author of Explaining Post-Conflict Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2015). A portion of the research for this article was conducted for the Political Instability Task Force, which is funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Task Force or the US government.

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