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Democratic accountability of US foreign aid eroding, article argues

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Worker wearing USAID vest, with plane in background

LAWRENCE — The prevailing assumption is that U.S. foreign aid is a governmental function. But the reality proves much different.

Sheyda Jahanbani in front of desk, computer screen, books“The majority of foreign aid work is done by private contractors,” said Sheyda Jahanbani, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.

“In fact, it’s implemented by a web of private contractors so wide that it’s known in Washington as ‘the development industrial complex.’”

That misconception is discussed in her article “New Directions or Dead Ends? Democracy and Development in the ‘Postwar,’” which details how foreign aid has reflected and shaped U.S. democracy since 1945. But although the program has earned more political legitimacy in the form of bipartisan congressional consent, it’s now less democratically accountable to the public.

The article is published in the latest issue of Diplomatic History.

“Part of my goal in the piece was to use historical thinking to explore this phenomenon,” Jahanbani said.

“This huge upswelling of private contractors doing the work of foreign aid starts in the 1970s for what are actually noble purposes, which are to decentralize and try to get out of that Vietnam complex. What winds up happening by the ’90s is you have all this expertise that has migrated from the public sector to the private sector. The U.S.’s mission remains the same — the expertise is still needed — and those private contractors wind up being the ones who have it. Now, without any real public accountability, you have all these private firms doing the work, and they get paid by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to do it.”

In “New Directions or Dead Ends?,” Jahanbani argues privatization was enabled by Cold War debates about how to square America’s global power with the values and practices of democracy. As her title implies, these new directions met with resistance.

“I think it’s very much a story of dead ends,” she said.

“At the end of Vietnam, there was a real ‘come to Jesus’ moment, a real confrontation with the delusional character of postwar American empire. And not just among the lefty activists, there was a broad group in Congress from both parties who wondered, ‘Do we really need to be doing nation-building?’”

Exacerbating this situation is the public’s fundamental fallacy about what U.S. foreign aid truly denotes.

“People think it’s a huge portion of the federal budget, and it’s a very tiny portion,” she said. “This has meant policymakers have always felt like they’re on the defensive when it comes to even humanitarian assistance.”

While there are different kinds of foreign aid, the one that the majority of Americans believe is most important is marked for humanitarian assistance and crisis situations.

“Policymakers feel really defensive about just saying, ‘We’re a rich country and can afford to do this stuff, and we have a moral obligation.’ So instead, they’re constantly cloaking to the point that they even convince themselves that we need to have a national security reason to do it,” Jahanbani said.

USAID during the Trump administration did nothing to curtail these inaccuracies.

“Trump wanted to slash and burn foreign aid, befitting a sort of ‘America first’ mentality. Many of the people who wound up being in his administration were those who recycle this myth about the expense of foreign aid to the U.S. budget. So that’s not surprising at all,” she said.

What ended up surprising Jahanbani was seeing Trump’s Republican allies in Congress so unwilling to cut the foreign aid budget.

“That fascinated me. This weird moment has converged where we actually have enormous consensus on foreign aid to the point that even a very loyal Republican Party is not willing to buck the president. Instead, Republican senators try to capitalize on his famously short attention span,” she said.

In January, President Joe Biden named Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as his choice to lead USAID, calling her “a leader in marshaling the world to resolve long-running conflicts, respond to humanitarian emergencies, defend human dignity and strengthen the rule of law and democracy.”

“Power being nominated to head USAID is a huge signal that the current president wants a very aggressive form of development policy,” Jahanbani said.

But the professor is less convinced Biden’s approach will fundamentally alter how Washington handles such aid.

“The theory and principles will change, but in the practice, it won’t really change,” she said.

A Pasadena native who has been at KU since 2007, Jahanbani researches U.S. foreign relations in the Cold War. Next year will see the publication of her latest book, “The Poverty of the World: Discovering the Poor at Home and Abroad, 1935-1973” (Oxford University Press).

“In the 1970s, the foreign aid program goes through this massive confrontation with its own limitations and its own hypocrisy, and then it survives to live another day and basically makes the same arguments for its own existence,” she said.

“It’s a deeply tragic story.”

Top image: USAID.