Cut Foreign Assistance Now and We All Pay Later

Aid in Action ©InterAction

Written by: Samuel A. Worthington

As the United States seeks to get its fiscal house in order, Congress must realize that cuts to foreign assistance now will only cost our country more later. Such a strategy would–in the most basic terms–be penny-wise and pound foolish.

As President Obama releases his 2012 budget proposal on Monday, there is no doubt that the 112th Congress will have to make difficult choices to address America’s $14 trillion national debt and a projected $1.5 trillion budget deficit. Some Republicans have their eye on the foreign assistance budget to ease this debt and budget crunch, but they could not be more wrong–for a variety of economic, security, and, of course, moral reasons.

Foreign assistance is a down payment for U.S. national security in that it helps to create a more stable and secure world. Investing in societies now reaps rewards for years to come and helps avert future military conflicts, which cost much more in blood and national treasure. Development is a key component of foreign policy strategy and must not be an afterthought.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates realizes this. He has said repeatedly that development is a lot cheaper than sending in soldiers. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also made clear in the past that the more significant the cuts to the State Department and USAID, the longer military operations will take.

Just like our leaders in the post-World War II era, we need to invest right. America not only rose to the challenges of the 20th century in terms of military might, it also rebuilt Europe and Japan to bring about a new world order. Eleven of the 15 largest importers of American goods and services are countries that graduated from U.S. foreign aid programs. The assistance we gave these nations planted the seeds of future prosperity in major trading partners such as South Korea and Taiwan, for example.

For the past decade we have seen bipartisan support for investments that have promoted U.S. standing in the world. Take President George W. Bush’s investment in AIDS and malaria programs. They have made a real difference to millions and helped improve our reputation and credibility in Africa. There has also been bipartisan support for health, basic education, food security, and democratic governance programs, not to mention U.S. assistance after natural and other disasters.

There is a great deal of public misperception about foreign assistance. For example, when asked how much money goes to foreign assistance, most Americans estimate that it chews up about a quarter of the federal budget. The sober reality is that less than one percent of the budget goes towards foreign assistance. If this amount is cut further, as some conservative Republicans are asking for, there won’t be much cake left, let alone icing.

The American public is extraordinarily generous, and being considered stingy as a nation is not a reputation we want in a world where we need to build alliances more than ever. We can be proud of the way Americans responded, for example, to the earthquake in Haiti last year. Let’s hope members of Congress will be in sync with that generous spirit. It’s a commitment that should be made, for all the right reasons.

Samuel A. Worthington is president of InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations doing relief and development work abroad.  This post originally appeared on InterAction’s blog, AidBuzz.

HKI’s President and CEO, Kathy Spahn, is the current chair of the board of directors of InterAction.

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