The word “billion” has a certain ring to it. It sounds like, and is, a lot — in any context. We don’t normally think of numbers higher than a billion.
So when the United States inked a memorandum of understanding with Israel this month, promising $38 billion in military aid over a 10-year period, it set off alarm bells for many.
To be sure, in terms of U.S. foreign aid, $3.8 billion a year is definitely a lot. The package promised to Israel is the largest awarded to date, though it is only slightly bigger than the roughly $3.5 billion Israel received annually from the United States in a 10-year deal that ends in 2017.
Most Americans think that a substantial chunk of the national budget goes toward deals like the one with Israel. In a Kaiser Family Foundation study published in early 2015, the average respondent thought that 26 percent of the federal budget went to foreign aid. More than half of the respondents thought the United States was spending too much on foreign aid.
In reality, this is what U.S. foreign aid looks like as a proportion of the total proposed federal budget for 2017:
Still, as noted earlier, even if the U.S. federal budget is massive, the $50.1 billion proposed foreign-aid budget for 2017 is a large sum (though it is 2.1 percent lower than last year’s budget allocation).
If we take that minuscule bit out of the budget and dissect it, we get two broad categories: economic assistance, which we commonly refer to as humanitarian aid, and military assistance, which the government refers to euphemistically as “overseas contingency operations.”
Here’s how the foreign-aid budget breaks down:
U.S. foreign aid serves many stated purposes, but, generally speaking, the money is intended to ensure American strategic interests abroad and bolster international institutions that respond to humanitarian crises, climate change, infectious diseases and a plethora of other development concerns.
By transposing the amounts of U.S. foreign aid budgeted to different countries, we can more easily see where the American government thinks those interests lie.
Below are two maps, or cartograms really — one for humanitarian aid, the other for military — that show countries sized proportionally to the amount of U.S. funding they receive.
This map retains at least a semblance of a regular map’s familiar contours. That is because U.S. humanitarian aid is spread out across most regions of the world.
Nevertheless, seven African countries feature among the top-10 recipients of economic assistance, and most of the money is funneled toward health initiatives, particularly HIV/AIDS treatment and research.
The biggest recipient is Afghanistan, which, after 15 years of a war that has entangled the United States, is using U.S. money to rebuild its tattered public infrastructure.
The map for military funding is far more skewed. About three-quarters of all direct military aid goes to just two countries: Israel and Egypt. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid since World War II — the country was forged into existence only in 1948. And Egypt procured such robust funding only by agreeing to an American-brokered peace deal with Israel in the 1978 Camp David Accords.
U.S. military aid also comes with major strings attached. Primary among them: Recipient countries have to spend that money on U.S. defense contracts. The only country partially exempted from this rule is Israel, which, according to the current agreement, can spend up to 26 percent of the aid it receives on products of its own defense industry. This provision was included to help Israel grow its fledgling defense industry decades ago. The new agreement does away with the provision, gradually phasing it out, to Israel’s chagrin.
The $3.8 billion, it’s worth mentioning, is less than the $4 billion to $5 billion a year that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sought.
Put together, the data from both maps, and the list of the top-10 aid recipients overall, shakes out like this:
This item has been updated.