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Opinion

Surprise! Americans want to 'slash' foreign aid – to 10 times its current size

Americans think foreign aid is 25 percent of the budget and want it to be 10. It's actually 1 percent. This is just one of many misconceptions about foreign aid – seen as an expensive handout that doesn't work. But foreign aid does work. And it works as a safeguard investment for America, too.

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Foreign aid does work

I suspect that much of the opposition to foreign aid arises from thinking that it does not work, that we keep giving out more and more and get little in return. I am the first to recognize that foreign aid has gone through many needed changes over the years. Too often during the cold-war era, it was used not to help the people who needed it, but to buy the loyalty of their often-corrupt governments.

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But take a look at the growth in the developing world since the end of the cold war. With peace and political progress coming to many developing countries, their economies boomed. Trade with the developed world, including the United States, grew exponentially. The boom went through the 1990s into the 2000s. The economic crisis slowed things, but many countries are again on an upward trend.

Aid helped provide many of the basic ingredients needed for this economic growth – health, agriculture, water, sanitation, education. The bipartisan PEPFAR program (The Unites States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief), for instance, is great example of an aid program that really works. It was and is crucial in stemming the epidemic of HIV/AIDS. If that epidemic takes off again, it could cripple those emerging economies.

Foreign aid programs are held to high standards for efficiency and impact these days. Accountability is key. If programs cannot show that they are working, they lose their funding. As with any endeavor, there’s always room for improvement, but the idea that the US is simply throwing money at problems, which results in throwing money away, is a big misconception.

Not just a moral duty, but an investment

The point is, foreign aid aimed at the developing world isn’t just a moral duty; it’s a good investment. It is much cheaper to help develop the economies of these countries now than to intervene later – either economically or militarily – when a crisis hits. It is much cheaper to keep communities from failing than to try to reconstruct them when they do. And in our globalized, interconnected world, any failed community is a liability for all of us.

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Fortunately, our small foreign aid budget has a disproportionately huge impact, bringing health and well-being to millions of people and goodwill toward the United States. Making cuts to 1 percent of the US discretionary spending budget won’t significantly cut the deficit or save the budget. Because there is such a tiny percentage of our spending at stake, in this case, you literally can’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor. But trying to do so would have consequences for the millions of people we are helping to become self-reliant. Funding these programs is a no brainer.

Ken Hackett is president of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian organization of the Catholic community in the United States.

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