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There is some controversy about whether, and to what extent, overseas aid programs help the poor. Some critics, such as Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly, argue that such programs have been extremely costly and largely ineffective (Moyo 2009; Easterly 2006).

One reply to these criticisms is that the critics focus largely on government-to-government aid programs, rather than on simple interventions that help individuals directly, such as malaria control programs, deworming, micronutrient programs and cash transfers (Karnofsky 2016). Another reply is that, in considering the cost of aid ($1 trillion), the critics fail to account for the number of people affected (400 million) and the time elapsed (sixty years). When these adjustments are made, it turns out that total aid spending in Africa amounts to $40 per person per year. A third reply is that critics have tended to focus on programs with average or below average effectiveness, rather than on aid’s biggest successes, such as the smallpox eradication program. Even if foreign aid programs had accomplished nothing other than eradicating smallpox, they would have a cost-effectiveness of one life saved per $40,000 (MacAskill 2015).

Further reading

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. New York: Penguin Press.
Criticizes government aid as wasteful and futile, and develops some constructive suggestions.

Karnofsky, Holden. 2016. The lack of controversy over well-targeted aid.
A blog post from GiveWell explaining that the effectiveness of well-targeted aid is not controversial.

MacAskill, William. 2015. Doing good better: How effective altruism can help you make a difference. New York: Gotham Books, ch. 3.
Criticizes aid skeptics for failing to consider the impact of the most cost-effective aid programs, such as the elimination of smallpox.

Moyo, Dambisa. 2009. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Dead aid: why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa.
Argues that recipients of government aid aren’t better off as a result of it, but much worse off.