July 23, 2019 | 73° F

O'BRIEN: United States should not make cuts to foreign aid

Opinions Column: Policy Over Politics


There is no single government program more wrongly maligned or misunderstood than foreign aid. In fact, Americans are infamous for their wildly inaccurate perceptions of its scope. The Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed Americans on the issue and found they estimated foreign aid to be 26 percent of the federal budget, when it actually makes up a mere 1 percent. This perception makes cuts to these programs wildly popular, and both of President Donald J. Trump’s budget outlines included deep cuts. Although, for the well-being of humanity, it is unquestionably the greatest undertaking of the American government. Even today as the federal government deals with a relatively large budget deficit, foreign aid should be one of the last, not first, programs on the chopping block.

Foreign aid is not, as most Americans perceive it, a simple giveaway to the rest of the world. Our government has been using it as an important diplomatic tool for decades. After World War II, the United States provided unprecedented assistance rebuilding Western Europe through the Marshall Plan. These funds — almost entirely grants rather than loans — were critical in reviving Europe’s economy and securing diplomatic allies against communist encroachment. In more modern times, we have been able to leverage this assistance as a diplomatic weapon, a substitute for using weapons of war. 

It is fair to want the U.S. government to focus on providing assistance to Americans, but we do not have to choose between helping the global poor and helping the American poor. In the richest society the planet has ever seen, we have the ability and the obligation to do both. 

Outside of the various diplomatic and strategic rationale is a brutally human component. While we contemplate policies to help our poor population eat better to curb obesity, malnutrition and outright starvation ravage large parts of the world. While we engage in a vicious debate over how to reduce the 33,000 gun-related deaths our country sees each year, millions abroad die from diseases we completely eradicated decades ago. The intensity and scope of suffering in the world’s poorest regions is nearly unimaginable to even the poorest Americans. From our perspective, easing this suffering is an inconsequential line item in our national budget, but on the receiving end, it has a monumental positive impact.

There is no better demonstration of foreign aid’s power to do good than former President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program, a global effort to fight the AIDS epidemic in third-world countries. Since the Marshall Plan, it is one of the United States’ most noble endeavors, and undoubtedly the greatest accomplishment of Bush’s presidency. Through direct treatment, prevention and awareness programs, PEPFAR has saved an estimated 12 million lives

There are certainly legitimate critiques of American foreign aid, and some efforts prove to be a waste of money or counterproductive. But rather than use these failures as justification for pulling back our efforts, we should see them as mandates to improve. 

The foreign aid debate speaks to a broader question over the direction in which to take American foreign policy. Military isolationism has reemerged as a viable alternative in the wake of extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for good reason. But while we should be far more hesitant to put troops on the ground and overthrow governments, we must continue to aggressively promote freedom, democracy and trade through our vast diplomatic powers. We should strive to be a more honest and straightforward player on the global stage. This will help us earn back the trust of the world and further validate the values we preach. 

The last 50 years of American foreign policy serves as proof of the effectiveness this strategy could have. Massive invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq yielded decidedly unspectacular results, and in the latter two cases, sowed pervasive anti-American sentiment. On the other hand, in regions where we promoted our values through aid and trade, incomes have risen, millions of lives have been saved and the goal of a more just, stable world has become more of a reality. These efforts were not instantaneous, smooth or without failures, but the end results were generally far better than regime change and violence. 

Foreign aid is a critical piece to this smarter brand of foreign policy. While the logic behind sending food and medicine abroad may not seem intuitive at first, it not only has an astounding human impact, but also advances our own interests in the long-run. Ultimately, helping solve global problems peacefully and diplomatically will leave us with more time and resources to care for our own people, too. 

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in economics. His column, "Policy Over Politics," runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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Connor O'Brien

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