Myths about U.S. foreign aid

Editor's note:

In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.

THE ISSUE: As President Trump pushes for a 30 percent budget cut to foreign assistance programs, myths surrounding the current extent and necessity of foreign aid abound. In reality, foreign aid only accounts for about one percent of the federal budget and advances three fundamental U.S. interests—it keeps us safe, it meets a moral imperative, and it builds economic prosperity.

If you have a hard time accepting foreign aid as an investment, think of it as insurance. Insurance that is cheaper than at some point having to put American troops in danger.


  • It’s a myth that foreign aid is unpopular. Polling over the last 25 years shows that up to 75 percent of the American public supports the programs funded by U.S. foreign assistance.
  • In the 1990’s foreign aid bills had a hard time passing through Congress, but that changed with President Bush and Obama: The last Congress passed eight bills supporting foreign aid.
  • President Trump’s first budget outline proposed a 30 percent reduction in foreign aid programs, but over 60 members of Congress have already spoken out against this proposed cut.
  • Foreign aid makes up only one percent of the federal budget, but public opinion polls show that the American people believe it’s close to 25 percent of all federal spending. This could be contributing to the common misconception that other countries aren’t doing as much as the U.S. when it comes to foreign aid.
  • Foreign aid is not only an investment in helping other countries become more stable and economically prosperous – it upholds American values, provides investment in critical markets for the U.S., and enhances American security.
  • Investing in foreign countries now can be viewed as an insurance policy against more expensive and more dangerous conflicts that would require the use of American troops in the future.
  • Though the U.S. was once protected by two wide oceans and two benign borders, modern technology and rapid transportation has rendered those defenses permeable and no longer our principal line of defense.
  • We are part of a global world today and our security is linked to the security of other countries around the world.


On cuts to foreign aid

Draconian cuts to diplomacy and development: Unilateral disarmament or head fake

10 elements for an effective Trump foreign aid program