Skip to main content

by Mark G. Wentling

Providing aid to low and middle-income countries (LMIC) is at the heart of our relationships with those countries. The concept is that needy countries on this list of 132 LMICs, particularly the 45 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the bottom range of this list, require external aid for their development. However, almost all the countries on the LMIC list are the same as they were over 30 years ago, and they are no closer to graduating into a higher income category. It is highly doubtful if any LMIC will achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030.

This raises several fundamental questions about the return on the US government’s investment. What are the cost-benefit and recurrent costs analyses? Do the returns justify the investment of the USG’s human resources and funding amounts? Is USG assistance contributing to modifying the host country’s behavior so that it is more favorable to US interests? Basically, is the activity worth USG resources?

Factors that should Disqualify Countries from Receiving US Assistance

US assistance programs have well stated performance benchmarks that are regularly measured and reported on. Failures to achieve satisfactory results are usually quickly communicated to designated host country officials, but that usually has little effect, if any, on continuing the programs. Some failures are indicative of structural or host government problems that, absent other overriding US interests, should be grounds for ending assistance programs.

The US should only offer assistance in response to written requests from foreign governments and should interpret a failure to respond expeditiously to an offer of assistance as evidence of a lack of interest. Good national leadership is a key to forward progress. The best leaders are focused on the interests of their people and have neither blood on their hands nor large sums of money stashed away in foreign banks. Leaders who overturned an elected government by force should be shunned and treated with ‘tough love’ in the interests of the local people. This could mean providing limited humanitarian assistance via qualified UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, but no development assistance, especially in conditions of ongoing violence. Further, leaders who do not want to relinquish their power at the end of their terms should be encouraged to do so; otherwise, USG aid missions should not collaborate with them. There is no place for ‘clientitis’ when dealing with venal host government officials. The USG should not try to maintain good relations in order to gain favor with LMIC host governments.

Good governance is a condition precedent to a progressive aid program. A high level of host government corruption should prompt a halt to development assistance. This message should be delivered loud and clear to top host government officials. Geostrategic pressures to provide USG development aid to counter aid from countries the USG is competing with on the international stage should be resisted.

Low foreign direct investment (FDI) from private investors indicates an LMIC has a bleak economic future. If the conditions do not exist in the host country to attract foreign private investment, it cannot progress economically. A US mission should collaborate with its host country counterparts to identify what must be done to improve the investment climate for private international investors. An LMIC that is unwilling to make the improvements needed to attract private investors should be subject to the termination of official USG development assistance.

Another factor for consideration is the status of the LMIC’s national debt. Many LMICs are considering debt relief or have already entered into debt relief agreements. Starting in 1996, a $100 billion program was initiated by the World Bank and other donor agencies entitled Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). All the over 30 LMICs which benefitted from this program were required to adopt financial management reforms before their heavy national debt burden at that time could be forgiven.

Now, once again, many of these same LMIC governments have failed in their fiscal responsibilities and are knocking on donor agency doors for relief from their unsustainable debt distress. If these governments are repeat offenders, having demonstrated gross fiscal irresponsibility, serious questions should be raised about providing them with further assistance. Moreover, the question must be asked as to why foreign lenders have loaned huge sums of money to countries with such a faulty fiscal history.

I’m tempted to agree that decades of USG assistance to LMICs have achieved some paltry positive results, but how durable have these results been and were they worth their cost? In our assistance programs, we have to practice tough love on ourselves as well as on the countries we are attempting to help. The preservation of bureaucratic turf has no place in forging serious bilateral relations, especially if the usual way of acting produces no long-lasting positive results.

Host governments should be notified of our expectations and the consequences of inaction by a specified date, which should include notification that US assistance missions will be withdrawn. There is no place for fear of cutting USG resource flows, funds, and staff … no matter if this means returning funds to the US Treasury. Standing up for what is right in the name of the US taxpayer is what counts.

This rapidly changing world calls for assistance program reforms that reflect today’s realities and practice ‘tough love’ when dealing with ineffective, unresponsive, or rogue host governments.End.

Mark WentlingMark G. Wentling retired in 1996 from the Senior Foreign Service after serving as USAID’s principal officer in six African countries. His 50 years in Africa includes work with the Peace Corps, nongovernmental organizations, and as a contract employee for USAID. He has published nine books, including an African Trilogy and his three-volume Africa Memoir, which covers all 54 Africa countries, as well as numerous professional articles. In August 2022, his ninth book, Kansas Kaleidoscope, was published. In 2023, he plans to publish his tenth book, Jackleg Boys. He resides in Lubbock, Texas with his Ethiopian wife and one of his seven grown children. He claims to have been born and raised in Kansas but made in Africa.


Comments are closed.