What Is the Intended Result of Foreign Aid? We Take A Look

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Each year, billions of dollars is spent in foreign aid. Major donor nations such as the US, UK, France, and Germany commit a set percentage of their national income to overseas assistance. But why? What do they expect this money to achieve and what result do they wish to see from it?

The intended result of foreign aid is to help people around the world who are living in poverty or who are affected by humanitarian crises. Donors also expect the outcome of their overseas aid programmes to improve global security, build economic ties, and strengthen alliances.

…that’s what foreign aid spending is supposed to do. However, what donors expect the outcome of aid projects to be and what they actually result in can be very different things. Let’s look at an overview of intended and actual results of international aid programmes.

What Result Is Foreign Aid Supposed to Have?

When donor countries provide foreign aid, the most important result they expect is for it to help people.

With millions of people around the world living in poverty, and millions more affected by conflicts, disasters and crises, the intended outcome of international aid is to alleviate suffering and reduce human misery.

Another outcome foreign aid is supposed to have is to help poorer countries develop.

Wealthy countries provide loans and donations of international aid to assist low- and middle-income countries to develop economically and politically. The ultimate result of overseas aid is to help these countries become richer and more advanced.

Overseas aid is supposed to result in increased global security and a reduction in international threats.

Military assistance is a key part of foreign aid and is supposed to help poorer countries defend themselves and achieve security. It is also designed to help them address threats such as terrorism, drug cartels and organised crime. The end result should be a reduction of these threats internationally.

Improving both the access to and quality of education for children in some of the poorest parts of the world is key objective of overseas aid.

Aid funding is supposed to result in more children receiving primary and secondary education. Significant amounts of foreign aid is also directed towards improving girls education with the expected outcome to be more access to schooling for young women.

An important aim of foreign aid is to improve global health.

Huge amounts of international aid funding is directed towards health projects in low- and middle-income countries.  The intended result is to improve the health outcomes for people living in poorer countries. Foreign aid also funds projects to tackle endemic diseases in the Global South such as HIV/AIDs and malaria. Donors hope the outcome of these project will be to reduction in deaths and illness from preventable diseases.

One aim of international aid is to provide an economic boost to both the donor country and the recipient nation.

Foreign aid provides finances, projects, expertise, and equipment covering a wide range of economic areas.  This is supposed to result in the economic development of the recipient country and increased trade and business ties with the donor state.

Donor countries expect foreign aid to result in stronger alliances with nations they see as strategically important.

Development, humanitarian, and military aid are all intended to make poorer countries richer and more secure. In return, donor countries expect a degree of political and diplomatic support and for this to result in stronger ties between the countries.

An outcome donors expect to see from their foreign aid programmes is the promotion of their values.

Many countries give foreign aid partly as a way to spread values such as democracy, free speech, the rule of law and human rights. Many countries that give large amounts of overseas aid feel it is morally right to promote these values. The eventual adoption of values such as these is seen as a long-term outcome of their aid programmes.

What Is the Actual Outcome of International Aid?

Now we’ve taken a look at what foreign aid donors expect the results of their projects to be, let’s go over what actually happens to a lot of overseas aid funding.

To start, it’s important to say that the intended result of foreign aid is to help people, and this is something it does achieve. Debates can be had about the effectiveness and efficiency of international aid, but it cannot be denied that it results in people being lifted out poverty and assistance being provided to people affected by crises, conflicts, and disasters.

As well as international aid aiming to help people and communities, it also intends to assist in the development of low- and middle-income countries economically.

There is mixed evidence that international aid actually helps with the development of low- and middle-income countries. Although poverty has been significantly decreased in recent decades, whether this was a result of foreign aid or not is disputed.

Another objective of international aid is to improve economic ties and build trade links between developed and developing countries.

It is proven that as countries develop, they increase their international trade and their businesses become more intertwined with the global economy. However, whether this happens as a result of foreign aid is less clear.

A definite outcome of international aid programmes ran by richer countries is that huge amounts of finances and resources are dedicated to achieving its objectives. This has resulted in an enormous industry of NGOs, social enterprises, consultancy firms and advisors that work on overseas aid projects.

Some people criticize the size of the aid industry and its reliance on donor grants from Western governments. Others argue it is an inevitable result of way aid money is directed and spent. Either way, it cannot be denied that a substantial industry has been built around international aid.

Overseas military aid makes up a big part of the international assistance given by donor countries.  Although the intended result is to increase the defensiveness and security of poorer countries and strategic allies, many studies show that military aid decreases the likelihood of wars ending and results in more protracted conflicts.

Another by-product of foreign aid appears to be a rise in corruption.

Studies have shown that there appears to be a link between increased overseas aid spending on a developing country and an overall rise in corruption there. The reasons for this are complex, however it means that an unintended result of international aid is more fraud and theft.

A further unintended result of international aid is that undemocratic and dictatorial regimes are able to stay in power for longer.

Huge amounts of foreign aid goes to countries such as Iraq, Bangladesh, Vietnam, South Sudan, and Jordan – all of which lack fully democratic and accountable governments. Foreign aid also goes to highly repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  Overseas aid not only supports these regimes but can act as a disincentive for them to reform.

An outcome of overseas aid, that it is often criticized for, is that it can create dependency.

Many development projects have proved to be unsustainable. It has also been shown that economies that receive large amounts of foreign assistance can become reliant on the additional finances the government receives from overseas aid. This is definitely not an intended result of foreign aid.

Examples of Overseas Aid Actually Achieving What It’s Supposed To

Now we’ve look at what foreign aid is supposed to result in, and what often actually happens, let’s look at a few examples for when it achieves the outcomes it’s supposed to…

Since the early 1990s, more than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty. Although this entire achievement can be not be credited to overseas aid alone, it is evident that significant increases in foreign aid spending have resulted in millions of people no longer living in destitution.

Another example of foreign aid achieving its intended result is the significant increase in girl’s education across the developing world.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of girls receiving primary education has risen from 25% in 1960 to 89% in 2006. This is an enormous improvement and represents millions of young women receiving their rightful education. It is also a strong example of the beneficial results of international aid.

Millions of dollars in overseas aid funding is directed towards improving global health.

Over the last decades, international aid spending on global health has resulted in major achievements in reducing deaths from endemic diseases in many parts of the developing world. Reductions in deaths from HIV/AIDs and malaria are good examples of this. The international response to the 2014 Ebola pandemic in West Africa is also an example of foreign aid achieving its intended result.

The enormous fall in infant-mortality rates worldwide are another example of international aid achieving what it’s supposed to.

In 1990, around the world 12.6 million children died before the age of five. Since then, infant mortality has dropped by 59%.  This has been achieved due to improvements in living conditions, healthcare, and nutrition; and in many parts of the world this is a result of overseas aid programmes.

A final example of overseas aid achieving it’s stated objective is the millions of people each year that receive humanitarian assistance.

There are currently 235 million people worldwide who require humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian responses are implemented using foreign aid funds that directly assists many of these people.

Examples of When International Aid Failed to Meet Its Objectives

Although there are many examples of foreign aid achieving its objectives, sadly there are also many examples where overseas aid fails to achieve what it is supposed to. Let’s look at a few…

The 2010 Haiti earthquake response is often sighted as a major failure of overseas aid.

Rather than achieve it’s intended result of helping the people of Haiti, the UN, foreign aid donor and international NGOs were blamed for disease outbreaks, corruption, mismanagement, and chronic inefficiencies. Although there are those that argue some short-term good resulted from the foreign aid delivered to Haiti, many argue that international aid in Haiti has been long-term failure.

Another example of foreign aid failing to achieve it’s intended result has been the US-led intervention in Afghanistan.

Trillions of dollars were spent by donors in both humanitarian and development assistance as well as in military aid. However, the takeover of the country by the Taliban in August 2021 highlighted that huge amounts of foreign aid does not always result in lasting sustainable peace and development.

Kenya has received millions of dollars in overseas aid over the last decades. However, many argue the outcome of this has not been long-term sustainable development.

Reports highlight the numerous failed foreign aid projects in the country. These include projects that never achieved their stated objectives as well as projects that proved unsustainable. Kenya is often sighted as a country that has received extensive amounts of foreign aid, but which has not resulted in development and prosperity.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.