President Bush, who considers his administration's recasting of foreign assistance and in particular a boost in aid to Africa as hallmarks of his legacy, is warning that the global financial crisis is no time to cut international aid.
Mr. Bush used a White House summit on international development Tuesday to send a message both domestically and abroad that economic and national security interests require maintaining foreign aid, even if the natural tendency in an economic downturn is to turn attention – and budgets – inward.
Doing so, Bush said, "would be a serious mistake."
The Bush administration touts a 2004 reform of US foreign assistance programs that focuses on "core principles" of good governance, transparency, results-based programs, and democracy. Bush has also increased aid to Africa, with emphasis on AIDS funding and wiping out malaria – programs for which an administration otherwise widely disparaged in the foreign-policy arena has received praise.
After falling off in the post-cold-war years, total US foreign aid rebounded after 9/11 as the Bush administration integrated foreign assistance into a new national security vision.
"The Bush administration has definitely raised the profile of development like no administration since Truman," said Henrietta Fore, the director of foreign assistance and USAID administrator, at a pre-summit press conference. "The president has brought a new awareness … of the central role that development plays in advancing US security interests by advancing democracy, and by laying the foundations for a more peaceful and prosperous world."
Although foreign aid has increased over the eight years of the Bush presidency, total assistance has declined in the past two years – a trend that international agencies say is true among wealthy countries.
Last month United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon opened a midpoint review of a global poverty reduction action plan by noting that aid from rich countries is falling even as developing countries face rising food and energy prices.
And either major presidential candidate would likely seek to put his own stamp on foreign aid if elected. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has talked of doubling US foreign assistance, though his campaign says the financial crisis would likely curtail those ambitions. Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate, speaks of seeking private funds to augment the public effort, and also of reforming the administration of assistance to stretch dollars further.
Bush's highlighting of his administration's foreign assistance efforts drew some criticisms, especially from those who say the president has neglected certain regions of the world. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez charges Bush with neglecting "areas like Latin America and the Caribbean." Mr. Menendez says these are "areas where anti-American dictators have been permitted to fill the void left by the Bush administration's disengagement, I see huge opportunities that were squandered."