Biden on Foreign Assistance in the VP Debate

Biden on Foreign Assistance in the VP Debate

One small item in the Biden-Palin debate that has gone largely unremarked in the press is Senator Biden’s comment on the US commitment on foreign assistance.  From the CNN transcript:

IFILL:  […]  What promises — given the events of the week, the bailout plan, all of this, what promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you’re not going to be able to keep?

BIDEN: Well, the one thing we might have to slow down is a commitment we made to double foreign assistance. We’ll probably have to slow that down.

What Senator Biden refers to is the Obama-Biden foreign assistance position of the campaign (specifically with respect to Africa):

Fight Poverty: Obama and Joe Biden will double our annual investment in foreign assistance from $25 billion in 2008 to $50 billion by the end of his first term and make the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015, America’s goals. They will fully fund debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries in order to provide sustainable debt relief and invest at least $50 billion by 2013 for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, including our fair share of the Global Fund.

The backdrop to this has a couple of elements.  One is that no one disputes that the Bush administration heavily increased aid to Africa on virtually every measure.

A second, however, is that the foreign assistance being discussed here is so-called official government assistance.  There is a considerable amount of controversy and debate, in the United States at least, as to the value of focusing on the amounts of aid in gross, on the supply side, as it were, over the demand side, and what can reasonably happen with the aid and with what speed and whether government aid is actually all that useful (outside certain widely acknowledged contexts, such as vaccination, various AIDS and malaria efforts, and other broadly accepted “public goods”).  It is controversial, in other words, the extent to which a doubling of US official development assistance would actually be useful, especially if provided immediately.

A third, following on the second, is whether the US should fully embrace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, including the specific targets and schedules of contributions beyond the goal itself, and which operate as a sort of Jeffrey Sachs’-written, series of centrally planned, five year development plans for the world.  Like pretty much all such centrally planned efforts, these have gone pretty much nowhere, and it is questionable whether the US should be signing on to them precisely at the moment that it becomes clear that the rest of the industrialized, rich world has given up on them.  It would appear to be a classic case of collective action failure accompanied by the usual insincere promising and then defection.  The rich world, Europe, Japan, everyone, has contributed less than half the supposed amounts so far and look even less likely to make the up the difference now, or even remain on schedule.

The United States is in a somewhat different position, however, and this is exactly what the Obama-Biden platform gets at.  The US has endorsed the overall goals of the UN’s Millennium poverty reduction program.  But it has never endorsed or accepted the specific targets and demands for specific amounts of aid that Sachs & Co. wrote on behalf of the UN bureaucracy.  It has never – this is controversial, to be sure, but reflects the current position of the administration, however one interprets the Monterrey meetings – accepted the famous .7% GDP for official development assistance.  No genuinely large economy in the industrialized world, even among the Europeans who accept it, has come close, in any case.  But of course those of us who are not Sachs-ites think that, once again, this mania with supply without consideration to demand and use of actual foreign assistance, plus the statist belief that it must come from official development assistance to “count,” is a very dubious idea.  So we do not care one way or the other about the .7% target; my view is that if it took more but were genuinely effective, I would support it – but the amount needed has to be set by demand and effective use, not the other way around.

Given that, I think it was and is a mistake for the Obama-Biden campaign to endorse the actual MDG target schedules – precisely as it becomes ever clearer that, even for Europe, this was just the usual exercise in handsome collective action speeches accompanied by insincere promises, but finally defection when it comes to paying up.  The Obama campaign endorsed them in large part, I suspect, simply because the campaign’s foreign policy advisors are largely committed to whatever the UN endorses, in a spirit of solidarity and global governance and meek and abject apology for the Bush administration’s unilateralism – because, in other words, it was something different from what the Bush administration was doing.  Regular readers of my posts or writings will be unsurprised to hear that I do not think those are very good reasons for doing anything.

Beyond everything else said about determining supply of funds on the basis of effective use and demand, however, there is a still broader point.  It is that a core assumption of the MDGs is that it really is a collective action problem, in which it mimics the problem of collective security and other exercises in mutual benefit.  But the fundamental feature of poverty reduction and development – the fundamental, if wholly abstract, tragedy – is that it is not an exercise in collective, mutual benefit.  It really is altruism.  If NATO is called upon to fight a Soviet invasion, there is a collective action problem – will country X show up to fight or seek to free-ride? – about mutuality.

In the case of poverty reduction in some remote place in Africa, there is very little such mutuality – assistance is genuinely about altruism.  In that case, by all means let us be altruistic.  But given that we do not have any consensus on how best to achieve the income gains of long term economic growth for the world’s poorest people, and also given, additionally, that it is far from obvious what is to be gained from pooling such aid at, for example, the UN, then countries should pursue such policies as they think most suited to their altruism and what they think might best work.  Altruistic development aid is not a mutual assistance pact and does not benefit from analyzing it as though it were and as though it required the same kind of coordination.

One wishes – well, I wish – that the Obama campaign had thought this through more deeply before putting Biden in the position of walking it back in the debate.  Although, it seems clear, from the reaction and lack thereof, walking back a $25 billion a year foreign assistance commitment seemed to raise no eyebrows – either that the commitment existed in the first place or that it would be given up with the merest shrug.  Of course, giving it up causes no damage to any Americans, except perhaps those who staff development organizations, so it is an easy “sacrifice” to make – aid to Africa really is altruism.  But it makes me wonder, at least, whether this is because everyone who was paying attention assumed, without further ado, that the Obama campaign has looked to mimic the Europeans in everything – not just their altruism, but also their insincerity.

(I will add some additional links to the MDGs, US government positions, Monterrey meeting, etc., in a bit.  But I wanted to get this posted before everyone moved on from the VP debate.)

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Africa, North America, Organizations, Trade & Economic Law
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Diplomatic Gunboat
Diplomatic Gunboat

Besides, China called and they want us to stop giving away their money.  They’re willing to make an exception for a couple of economic bailouts–but just a couple, mind you.