Foreign aid skepticism

Foreign aid skepticism is skepticism concerning the impact of foreign aid programs.

Foreign aid skeptics such as Dambisa Moyo, William Easterly and Angus Deaton criticize foreign aid programs on various grounds. Three of the most commonly raised objections are that aid programs have been (1) extremely costly, (2) largely ineffective, and (3) often net harmful (Easterly 2006; Moyo 2009; Deaton 2013). The rest of this entry summarizes some responses to these criticisms.


Costly programs can still be cost-effective. As noted, aid skeptics often object to the high costs of aid programs. For example, Moyo writes: "So there we have it: sixty years, over US$1 trillion dollars of African aid, and not much good to show for it." (Moyo 2009: p. 52) Similarly, Easterly writes: "the other tragedy of the world’s poor… is the tragedy in which the West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get three dollars to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths." (Easterly 2006: p. 15)

To assess the cost-effectiveness of aid, however, one needs to consider not just the costs of aid programs, but also their benefits, represented by the number of people affected (over 400 million) and the period during which they were affected (sixty years). When these adjustments are made, it turns out that total aid spending in Africa has amounted to only $40 per person per year (MacAskill 2015; cf. Singer : 105-106). A separate estimate concludes that the flow of external development assistance accounts for about 1% of developing world income (Temple 2010: 4431).

Some types of aid are much more effective than others. Critics of aid have largely focused on economic development, rather than global health. But these two forms of aid differ greatly. The Smallpox Eradication Programme , funded in part by international aid, has saved over 60 million lives since 1980 (MacAskill 2015). UNICEF's Campaign for Child Survival is estimated to have saved around 12 million lives by the end of the 1980s (UNICEF 1996: 62). Other examples of successful aid programs include the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, the Polio Eradication Initiative, and the Onchocerciasis Control Program (Sachs 2005). Even aid skeptics generally acknowledge these successes. Thus, Deaton writes (Deaton 2013):

[e]xternal aid has saved millions of lives in poor countries. UNICEF and other agencies brought antibiotics and vaccinations to millions of children, reducing infant and child mortality. The control and elimination of disease-bearing pests have made safe once-dangerous regions of the world. An international effort eliminated smallpox, and a current effort is close to doing the same for polio. Aid agencies have made oral rehydration therapy available to millions of children and are providing insecticide-treated bed nets to protect against malaria, a disease that still kills a million African children every year. Between 1974 and 2002, a joint effort by the World Bank, the World Health Organization, UNDP, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization all but eliminated river blindness as a public health.

Similarly, Easterly writes (Easterly 2009):

There are well known and striking donor success stories, like the elimination of smallpox, the near-eradication of river blindness and Guinea worm, the spread of oral rehydration therapy for treating infant diarrheal diseases, DDT campaigns against malarial mosquitoes (although later halted for environmental reasons), and the success of WHO vaccination programmes against measles and other childhood diseases.

The forms of aid skeptics focus on are not as ineffective as these skeptics contend. Even if attention is confined to economic development (which, as noted, is a comparatively ineffective form of aid), the existing evidence fails to support the pessimistic assessment of the aid skeptics. As a leading expert on poverty notes, "an objective review of the evidence does not suggest that aid typically fails. Indeed, in contrast to the claims in [Angus Deaton's] The Great Escape, the best recent evidence suggests that aid has helped promote economic growth on average over the longer term." (Ravallion 2014: 982; cf. Ravallion 2016: 529)

Arguments about the effectiveness of foreign aid have little relevance for individual donors. Aid skeptics typically focus on bilateral or multilateral aid, rather than on the simple, targeted programs that GiveWell and other charity evaluators consider most effective (Karnofsky 2015). Moyo herself stresses that her book "is not concerned with emergency and charity-based aid" (Moyo 2006: 7), and objects to those who "conflate my arguments about structural aid with those about emergency or NGO aid." (Moyo 2013) Similar remarks apply to Easterly, as Amartya Sen notes in a review of his book: the arguments of the aid skeptics should not "be read as a general skepticism toward the idea that one person can consciously and deliberately do good to another. This is not Easterly's position at all." (Sen 2006: 173), Thus, even if the criticisms are valid and generalizable to all forms of aid, they have very limited bearing on what altruistic individuals should do. As William MacAskill notes: "even if it turned out that every single development program that we know of does more harm than good, that fact would not mean that we can buy a larger house, safe in the knowledge that we have no pressing moral obligations of beneficence upon us. There are thousands of pressing problems that call out for our attention and that we could make significant inroads on with our resources." (MacAskill 2019: 56). MacAskill goes on to note a number of ways in which individuals can use their resources to help others effectively:

  • Spare 20 years’ worth of unnecessary incarceration, while not reducing public safety, by donating to organisations working in criminal justice reform (Open Philanthropy 2017b).
  • Spare 1.2 million hens from the cruelty of battery cages by donating to corporate cage-free campaigns (Open Philanthropy 2016a).
  • Reduce the chance of a civilisation-ending global pandemic by funding policy research and advocacy on biosecurity issues (Open Philanthropy 2014).
  • Contribute to a more equitable international order by funding policy analysis and campaigning (Open Philanthropy 2016b)


Deaton, Angus (2013) The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Easterly, William (2006) The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Easterly, William (2009) Some cite good news on aid, Aid Watch, February 18.

Karnofsky, Holden (2015) The lack of controversy over well-targeted aid, The GiveWell Blog, November 6.

MacAskill, William (2015) Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference, New York: Random House, ch. 3.

Macaskill, William (2019) Aid scepticism and effective altruism, Journal of Practical Ethics, vol. 7, pp. 49–60.

Moyo, Dambisia (2009) Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Moyo, Dambisa (2013) Dr. Dambisa Moyo responds to Bill Gates’ personal attacks, Dambisa Moyo’s Website, May 30.

Open Philanthropy (2014) Biosecurity, Open Philanthropy, January.

Open Philanthropy (2016a) The humane league — corporate cage-free campaigns, Open Philanthropy, February, sect. 1.1.2.

Open Philanthropy (2016b) Center for global development — general support 2016, Open Philanthropy, February.

Open Philanthropy (2019) Criminal justice reform strategy, Open Philanthropy, December, sect. 3.

Ravallion, Martin (2014) On the role of aid in the great escape, Review of Income and Wealth, vol. 60, pp. 967–984.

Ravallion, Martin (2016) The Economics of Poverty: History, Measurement, and Policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, sect. 9.9

Sachs, Jeffrey (2005) The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, New York: Penguin Press, ch. 13.

Sen, Amartya (2006) The man without a plan: can foreign aid work?, Foreign Affairs, vol. 85, pp. 171–177.

Singer, Peter (2009) The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, New York: Random House.

Temple, Jonathan (2010) Aid and conditionality, in Dani Rodrik & Mark Rosenzweig (eds.) Handbook of Development Economics, vol. 5, Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 4415–4523.

UNICEF (1996) The State of the World’s Children 1996, Oxford: Oxford University Press.