Aid and Level of Need

27 September 2006

The United Nations measures the level of human development of its member countries in its "Human Development Index" (HDI). This index is regarded as the standard measure for the well-being of people (especially children), and it incorporates measures of poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy. It is published regularly as part of the Human Development Report. Presumably, countries with a low HDI would be the ones in most need of humanitarian aid, and those with high HDI numbers would not need much, if any. So how do the US foreign aid numbers compare to HDI?

To answer that question, I got the latest (2005) HDI numbers from Wikipedia, and added them to my previous foreign aid spreadsheet. You can look at the latest version of the spreadsheet on foreign aid, if you are interested in the specifics; I also found a usable source for the corruption index numbers discussed in my previous post on corruption, so the new spreadsheet contains those numbers as well.

What conclusions can we draw from the numbers? Well, clearly some of the countries of the world that are the worst off are not receiving much aid. For instance, Niger, the country with the lowest HDI, receives only the 96th-highest amount of per-capita US foreign aid. Sierra Leone, with the 2nd lowest HDI, is number 59 in per-capita aid. In fact, of the 15 countries with the lowest HDI numbers, the one receiving the most per-capita aid (Zambia) is only number 35 in per-capita aid.

On the other end, most of the countries with high HDI numbers are receiving very little, if any, aid (as you would expect). The main exceptions are Israel, which has an HDI number of 0.915 (about the same as Spain and Portugal), and yet receives the 5th-most per-capita aid; and Cypress, with a similar HDI number of 0.891, number 21 in per-capita aid.

Clearly, our foreign aid decisions are being based largely on something other than humanitarian need.