What Is the U.S. Agency for International Development?

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is an independent federal agency that provides civilian aid to foreign countries. By providing development and humanitarian assistance, the agency aims to further American interests abroad while improving lives in the developing world.

Key Takeaways

  • President John F. Kennedy created USAID in 1961 to administer the federal government's foreign assistance programs.
  • Though independent, USAID is subject to the guidance of the President, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Council.
  • USAID implements more than $20 billion in combined annual appropriations, most of which come from the U.S. State Department.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa receives 39% of USAID distributions, with most funding going toward health and humanitarian efforts.

Understanding the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act into law and created USAID by executive order. The agency is tasked with administering the federal government's civilian foreign aid programs, which include disaster relief, technical assistance, poverty alleviation, and economic development.

While USAID is independent, it is subject to the guidance of the President, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Council. The agency's administrator and deputy administrator are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

USAID is responsible for implementing more than $20 billion in combined annual appropriations, most of which come from the U.S. State Department. The agency provides assistance to more than 120 countries. The top 10 recipients, in order of funding, are: Jordan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Syria, South Sudan, Kenya, and Iraq. Sub-Saharan Africa receives 39% of USAID distributions, with the majority of funding going toward health and humanitarian efforts.

History of USAID

U.S. civilian assistance to foreign nations began in the 19th century with informal "technical missions," in which expertsoften with government assistancetraveled to Asia and Latin America to spread knowledge of industrial techniques, economic policy, sanitation, and other fields. In 1919, Congress formed the American Relief Administration to provide humanitarian assistance to post-war Europe.

Following World War II, the Marshall Plan saw the U.S. spend roughly $13.3 billion (or $143 billion in 2017 dollars) to rebuild war-ravaged European economies. The Cold War led to competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. to win the favor of "third-world" countries (that is, outside the first-world West or second-world communist bloc). While much of this effort was focused on military aid, civilian assistance also played a part.

President Harry S. Truman built upon the Marshall Plan by making international aid a key part of U.S. foreign policy. The goal was to to create markets for the U.S. by reducing poverty and increasing production in developing countries. It was in this context that President Kennedy ordered the State Department to create an independent agency to coordinate civilian foreign aid.