U.S. Foreign Aid and United Nations Voting Records

Report Global Politics

U.S. Foreign Aid and United Nations Voting Records

June 12, 1998 5 min read

Authors: Richard Fisher, Stephen Yates, James Przystup and Robert O'Quinn

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Congress has begun work on the fiscal year (FY) 1999 appropriations for the U.S. foreign assistance program. Each year, foreign aid proponents take great pains to assure Congress that the money the United States spends on foreign aid directly supports U.S. foreign policy goals abroad. Indeed, J. Brian Atwood, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Congress in March 1998,

In many respects, [the foreign aid budget] is a bare-boned and balanced approach to development and humanitarian programs that will significantly contribute to achieving the administration's foreign policy objectives.2

There are, of course, aspects of the U.S. foreign aid program that do support U.S. foreign policy goals; among them are military and security assistance programs. But these programs, which are restricted mainly to the closest U.S. allies abroad, comprise less than 22 percent of the foreign aid budget. The largest portion of the U.S. foreign aid budget, economic development assistance, goes to many countries that seldom support U.S. foreign policy initiatives.

One way to measure the U.S. foreign aid program's influence around the world is to examine the voting records of U.S. aid recipients in the United Nations (U.N.). Despite the many problems plaguing the U.N., it remains an international forum in which the United States seeks the cooperation of other countries in a variety of foreign policy matters.3 A review by Heritage analysts of several years of voting records in the U.N. and U.S. foreign aid spending habits indicates that foreign aid has little impact, if any, on winning support among recipients for U.S. policy initiatives in the U.N. In fact, most recipients of U.S. foreign aid vote against the United States more often than they vote with it. This casts serious doubt on the claims from Administrator Atwood and other proponents of foreign aid that such spending is vital to support the national interests of the United States.

Consider the following facts drawn from the 1997 U.N. session:

  • 74 percent of U.S. foreign aid recipients4voted against the United States a majority of the time. This was up from 68 percent in 1996 and 64 percent in 1995. Thus, nearly three out of every four foreign aid recipients vote against the United States in the U.N. most of the time.5

  • U.S. foreign aid recipient votes against the United States have increased in number in each of the past three years.

  • Of the ten largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, six voted against the United States more than half the time (see Table 2). This is the same level as in the 1996 U.N. session.

  • The top ten countries voting against the United States more than half the time are scheduled to receive some $230 million in foreign aid in FY 1998 (see Table 3).
  • India, the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid and receiving some $144 million in assistance in FY 1998, voted against the United States 80 percent of the time. This marked an increase from 76 percent in the 1996 session. Thus, India voted against the United States in the U.N. more than Iran, Libya, and Myanmar. Despite U.S. urging, moreover, India recently embarked on a series of nuclear weapons tests that threaten U.S. strategic and security interests in the region.

  • Pakistan, India's neighbor that is receiving some $6.7 million in U.S. foreign aid in FY 1998, voted against the United States in the U.N. 69 percent of the time. Pakistan, too, has disregarded U.S. requests and begun testing nuclear weapons in response to India's tests.

  • Laos, from which President Bill Clinton lifted a decades-old U.S. restriction on the disbursement of foreign aid because of human rights abuses, voted against the United States 82 percent of the time, almost as often as Cuba. Since lifting the restriction on Laos, however, the Clinton Administration has sent over $17 million in U.S. foreign aid to Laos.

  • Indonesia and Thailand, both of which are receiving bailouts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), voted against the United States 68 percent and 63 percent of the time, respectively. These two countries together will receive more than $49 million in U.S. foreign aid in FY 1998.

  • Haiti, to which President Clinton sent U.S. troops to restore deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994 and which he now claims is a U.S. ally in the Caribbean, will receive over $101 million in U.S. foreign aid in FY 1998. This makes Haiti the ninth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid--receiving almost as much as Russia. Despite this assistance, Haiti voted against the United States 57 percent of the time.

  • Egypt, the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (at some $2.1 billion annually), voted against the United States 66 percent of the time.

  • Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa's largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (at about $114 million last year), voted against the United States 61 percent of the time.

  • The Philippines, which received some $47 million in foreign aid last year despite consistent progress in economic liberalization, voted against the United States 67 percent of the time.

  • Mexico, whose economy was bailed out by the IMF under U.S. guidance and support in 1994, continues to receive some $15 million in foreign aid from the United States each year. Nevertheless, Mexico voted against the United States 62 percent of the time.

There are many reasons for a country to vote with or against the United States in the U.N. It seems unlikely that a country would alter its voting habits in the U.N. solely as the result of U.S. foreign aid funding. One thing is sure, however: While the Clinton Administration and other proponents of U.S. foreign aid continue to argue that the program is vital to promoting U.S. interests around the globe, the evidence simply does not bear this out.

Bryan T. Johnson is the former Policy Analyst for International Economic Affairs in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


1. This is the fourth in a series of annual Heritage Foundation studies that analyze the voting habits of U.S. foreign aid recipients in the United Nations. Previous studies are Bryan T. Johnson, "Does Foreign Aid Serve U.S. Interests? Not at the United Nations," F.Y.I. No. 136, April 15, 1997; Bryan T. Johnson, "Foreign Aid Wins Few Friends at the United Nations," F.Y.I. No. 101, May 13, 1996; and Bryan T. Johnson, "Most Aid Recipients Vote Against the U.S. at the U.N.," F.Y.I. No. 55, April 12, 1995.

2. Testimony of Administrator J. Brian Atwood before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess., Washington, D.C., March 18, 1998.

3. In the most recently concluded U.N. session, several U.S.-identified vital policy issues were considered, including U.S.-sponsored resolutions on human rights, liberalization of international trade, recognizing Cuba's human rights abuses, and combating international terrorism and drug trafficking.

4. Total foreign assistance numbers include only bilateral assistance and omit foreign aid given through indirect sources, like the IMF and the World Bank, and U.S. regional aid.

5. The Clinton Administration often dismisses such statements by asserting that the figures are based only on "recorded votes" and not "consensus votes." Yet this is a smoke screen to obscure the facts. The U.N. categorizes all votes into two broad groups, "recorded" and "consensus" votes. Recorded votes are taken on issues that most directly affect such international topics as nuclear weapons proliferation, organized crime, and drug trafficking. Consensus votes most often are on procedural matters relating to the internal administration of the U.N. and related issues, and thus often have little to do with foreign policy or a country's vital interests. When measuring how countries support or oppose U.S. foreign policy initiatives, therefore, it makes little sense to consider consensus voting because most of these votes do not touch on the vital issues the Clinton Administration claims are advanced by foreign aid. Recorded votes are far more accurate in reflecting the positions of governments at the U.N.


Richard Fisher

Distinguished Fellow in China Policy

Stephen Yates

Senior Associate Fellow in African Affairs

James Przystup

Senior Visiting Fellow

Robert O'Quinn

Policy Analyst