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.

If a poll shows support for a position that politicians espouse, they will point to this finding as proof that they are doing the will of the people. If a poll shows the opposite, they are likely to dismiss it, saying pollsters shouldn’t be running the government.

So what are our politicians to do with this? Polls show that in this big-deficit, belt-tightening time, Americans think that foreign aid should be cut. But they also think that it should be ten times the amount it is now.

Say what?

That’s right. According to pollsters, the vast majority of Americans polled say the US should put foreign aid first in line for the chopping block. When you ask them how much of the federal budget is now spent on such aid, they say 25 percent. And how much should it be? They say about 10 percent.

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But the fact is that foreign aid is only about 1 percent of the budget. Not 25 percent, as most Americans polled think. So slashing it to 10 percent – the level they think it should be at – would actually be a huge increase. This is just one of the misconceptions about foreign aid that exist in America. And it’s these misconceptions that need to be cleared up as we enter this budget season, or millions around the world are going to suffer. Ultimately, foreign aid isn’t just good for those we help; it’s good for America.

Foreign aid isn't just handouts

For one thing, many think foreign aid is simply a matter of handouts, giving people food and clothing and such. Actually, all sorts of things come under foreign aid. Some of US foreign aid funding goes to Israel and Egypt, as part of the Camp David accords. Some supports the needs of other governments. And a portion is aimed at helping the poor in the developing world. Certainly there are food assistance programs to help the hungry and vulnerable – often children – but there is still so much more to foreign aid. For example, foreign assistance develops agriculture so that self-reliance can grow in areas where, now, one bad harvest or one dry rainy season can create a need for emergency aid.

Other programs bring water, sanitation, and health services – really the essentials of life – to the poorest of the poor. Still others build up civic structures so that people can begin to have a stronger voice in shaping their own fate. Self-reliance is the focus and goal of such foreign aid today.

As members of a faith-based organization, we at Catholic Relief Services do not hesitate to make the moral argument for such spending. While we understand that all must sacrifice in this time of financial austerity, we do not think it is right to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. We are confident that the majority of Americans, of all faiths and beliefs, share that moral understanding.

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.

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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