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U.S. Foreign Assistance: Folding Culture into the Discussion October 7, 2009

Posted by Trice Kabundi in Analysis.

US foreign assistance is core component of US foreign policy and is considered an essential tool of US foreign policy.  As US foreign policy objectives are perused through non-military foreign aid, the effectiveness and sensitivity of such efforts have real foreign policy implications.  Ineffectual policy decisions and/or poor choices negatively influence the perception of the US in target countries and regions and waste finite development resources. A policymaker’s knowledge of varying cultural norms within target countries can lead to a better understanding of local culture, which allows for more informed foreign assistance options and leads to a more effective foreign policy.

The recent Aspen Institute conference on cultural diplomacy discussed the importance of using cultural understanding to create more effective policies. Emphasis was placed on the utilization of “cultural assets in mutually beneficial political, social, economic, and educational exchanges”.  There was widespread consensus that culture is often neglected in defining, implementing, and evaluating foreign policy.  As foreign policy objectives are perused through the rubric of foreign assistance, it is important to remember that cultural understanding leads to more effective foreign assistance.  Foreign assistance that lacks the local culture perspective can be susceptible to the following setbacks:

  • Donor Perspective Foreign assistance will most likely be constructed solely from the perspective of the donor if the needs and cultural perspectives of a recipient country are not known or acknowledged.  More so, the more US agencies involved in implementing assistance programs increase the likelihood of multiple donor perspectives, essentially drowning out the local perspective.  In Ethiopia, for example, there are currently nine US government agencies providing the country with foreign assistance. A major complaint by local NGOs in Ethiopia is that the various agencies involved often lack an understanding of local needs and values, and are unable to clearly prioritize foreign assistance that is reflective of the country’s long-term developmental goals to increase self-sufficiency.
  • Lost in Translation How foreign aid in the recipient country is translated into the framework of local perspectives and political complexities defines how its intent and effectiveness will be received. Aid that is continuously delivered to governments of corruption-prone countries can create a negative perception of the US by locals. The creation of more aggressive anti-corruption measures can better the view citizens of corruption-prone countries have of foreign aid and the US, and would reach intended groups more effectively. In Uganda, for example, aid donors required the government to setup an anti-corruption program for education funding that could be monitored. Once the program was set into motion, funding for schools went up from 13 percent in 1996 to 80 percent in 2002.
  • Pre-existing Mechanisms In many cases already existing civil society organizations play important roles in their local areas, and can be great assets in strengthening foreign assistance effectiveness. In many countries, such as Cameroon, the US already supports initiatives that fund many developmental projects by local NGOs. The US could expand to increasing the capabilities of groups that currently attempt to monitor their government’s fiscal responsibility. If such groups could be empowered in order to provide a local monitoring of how and where aid money is spent, there would be an increase in the momentum of governance reform in many countries.


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