Donald Trump’s Short-Sighted International Aid Cuts Line the Pockets of Beltway Bandits
As we see changes begin to take place in the operations of our government, it is impossible to stay silent as the nation is steered towards disaster, and such is the case in terms of international development. The United States is a global leader in foreign aid, and this is a role which cannot be taken lightly, nor should it be embroiled in short-term partisan conflicts when its ramifications extend far beyond our own borders. Donald Trump has suggested cuts of approximately 31% to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which while serving his narrative of saving tax payer dollars, is likely to only result in much greater costs for the nation in the future when we will be forced to spend extravagantly to erase the consequences of this misstep. The majority of Americans mistakenly believe that we spend immense portions of our national budget on foreign aid projects, with most believing we spend upwards of 20% of our budget on aid. Now living in Trump’s America, this widely-held fallacious belief could be some of the reason that USAID found itself on the chopping block. In reality, international aid constitutes less than 1% of national budget. Given its miniscule apportionment of funds compared to other national agencies, any cuts to USAID are more symbolic and politically motivated than actually functional in streamlining government expenditure. The proposed sweeping cuts to USAID would result in more than just a loss of staff and intellect within USAID, but also the entire elimination of the independent U.S. African Development Foundation, U.S. Trade and Development Agency, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and United States Institute of Peace. The work conducted by these agencies is not simply chafe that can be harmlessly eliminated, for they make a real impact on the lives of people all over the globe. Even outside of USAID, international aid in general is being called into question, with a 35% reduction in funding for the Treasury International Programs. Trump has suggested that the funds freed by spending cuts like those USAID may experience will go to help emphasize our already immense military might. This is counterintuitive if Trump wishes to achieve his stated goal of defeating ISIS, for without the civilian support that fills the gaps left by local government, a similar threat will emerge in the future. Thus, the power wielded by our aid spending cannot be relinquished so quickly.
The soft power that the United States exercises through our aid financing allows us to prevent future conflicts and maintain a role as a global leader. 120 different military generals wrote a letter telling the current administration that they must recognize the importance of this soft power, highlighting that even those who would hypothetically benefit from receiving extra funding cut from USAID mark international aid can attest to the importance of development work abroad as a component of national security. Former Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East at USAID Mona Yacoubian helps elucidate how crucial development aid is to achieving our national security objectives, explaining that security rests on “…the three-legged stool of defense, diplomacy, and development. In this era of complicated security challenges, development, alongside diplomacy, must retain equal footing with defense.” Those in our armed forces also recognize that wars cannot be won with their bullets alone, for as General Joseph Votel, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, was quoted by Foreign Policy to testify to congress, “The military can help to create the necessary conditions; however, there must be concomitant progress in other complementary areas (e.g., reconstruction, humanitarian aid, stabilization, political reconciliation)…Support for these endeavors is vital to our success.” Indeed, once strategic military objectives have been achieved, USAID’s work is crucial to ensuring that a maintained military presence is not necessitated for years to come. In a time when many are already critical of our widespread military involvement abroad, any initiatives which can lessen the need for the deployment of U.S. troops abroad should not be considered ‘wasteful’ spending. The importance of international development aid is further supported by the widely-held belief that following U.S. military involvement in Iraq, the lack of adequate civilian support is what laid the foundation for the formation of the modern Islamic State. As explained succinctly in an article by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and former USAID administrator Raj Shah, “Vacuums of leadership are not generally filled by the good guys.” With significant evidence clearly to the contrary, one questions whether Donald Trump’s budget choices result from blind ignorance, or purposeful malice. When speaking about international development aid, Trump told the Washington Post that “I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they’d be blown up. And we’d build another one, and it would get blown up. . . . And yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn.” This quote illustrates the clear lack of intelligent thought being put into our national security, for while education in Brooklyn is obviously a priority, it cannot supplant aid abroad, because we are not fighting radical extremist terrorism from Brooklyn. Aid works to fill gaps left after military goals have been achieved, building the positive relationships between the United States and civilians abroad that are so crucial to counteracting radical ideologies. If Donald Trump truly wanted to put ‘America first,’ then he would not cut USAID and aggrandize already egregious problems abroad that will only necessitate further spending in the future.
It is clear that Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to USAID serve a larger partisan agenda and scapegoat the already much maligned global poor for no purpose other than easily-condemnable political posturing. Trump has already set a precedent of targeting groups who have little ability to defend themselves, attacking refugees with his first failed and subsequent second revised executive orders on immigration. Trump’s expansion of the ‘Global Gag Rule’ cuts family planning programs abroad, which has real palpable impacts on the lives of people who have no avenue to voice their protest through, and will likely resultin the cutting of malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention programs. Obviously, the global public good is no longer the priority. Refugees find themselves in the sights of Trump’s partisan attacks, for cutting aid to them can allow Trump to parade himself as a price-savvy budget hawk while targeting those who are not afforded the opportunity to create any recourse for such misguided actions. Ill-thought-out actions such as this have drawn criticism from member of Trump’s own party, such as Senator Marco Rubio, who tweeted that “Foreign Aid is not charity. We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1% of budget & critical to our national security.” The despicable targeting of the world’s poorest for political purposes has also drawn the criticism of more than 100 faith leaders from around the country. In a letter to congress, they cite the fact that today we have the most displaced persons living on the planet since the Second World War to decry Trump’s proposed budget cuts, for when the need is so clearly demonstrated we cannot possibly deviate from our mission to promote freedom and human rights if we want to still see ourselves as a ‘city on the hill’ for the rest of the world to follow. Trump’s attacks on USAID are reminiscent of those of Senator Jesse Helm in the 1970s, and they will have similar ramifications. Helm’s attacks increased the reliance of USAID on controversial and problematic private aid contractors, and Trump’s proposed cuts would serve to further increase reliance on the detrimental industry.
International private development contractors profit off of reapportioning segments of money intended to go to international aid and siphoning it directly into their already-overstuffed pockets. Companies whose goal is profit, opposed to a government agency whose goals are more altruistic, cannot possibly compete to achieve the same results in international development, for at the end of the day, their pockets will always come before the stomachs of the global poor. USAID already relies on these “beltway bandits” more than it should, with the top 10 for-profit aid contracting corporations receiving more than $5.8 billion in contracts from 2003-2007. USAID does not have the staff nor the funding to be able to manage all of its projects internally, forcing it to divert funds that could be better spent to aid contractors to be able to achieve some of its goals. Yet, the problem with aid contractors is that they work to achieve very narrow and specific goals, ignoring the larger dilemmas that necessitated the aid in the first place. Indeed, how can we expect companies who profit of the persistence of global problems to have any incentive to solve them? Under president Obama, USAID director Raj Shah worked to move the agency away from its reliance on private contractors, saying that “This agency is no longer satisfied with writing big checks to big contractors and calling it development.” Furthermore, these contractors often struggle to even meet the objectives they are given, building only 8 of 286 schools and 15 of 253 medical centers planned in Afghanistan. Indeed, reliance on aid contractors is significantly problematic for these contractors are monetarily incentivized to falsify their achieved results in order to continue to receive funding, with one group receiving more than $150 million tax-payer dollars for goals that they failed to achieve in reality. Often, especially when considering budget cuts, development contractors are portrayed as a viable option to cut the costs of international aid, for they can more precisely set and achieve specific development goals. Unfortunately, opposed to addressing issues that local populations elect as important to them, or any of the underlying dilemmas that caused the issues in the first place, aid contractors’ goal-setting leads to resources being siphoned to specific issues that are designated by the for-profit organizations as reachable. Indeed, industrial development corporations (IDCs), subsist diverting money intended for the worlds’ neediest into their own pockets, for they rely on subcontracting to accomplish their goals, and at each level more aid funding is lost to profit-motivated contractors rather than furthering any development initiatives. IDC executives take their hefty cut, and then after paying their workers the leftover development funding goes to the companies hired by the IDC, and from there the resulting pittance is paid to local workers to conduct the actual labor of development. This profit-motivated managerialism has colonial roots in the Dutch and British East India Companies, and serves no purpose but to further divide the targets of development from the funds allotted to them, based around the problematic notion that western oversight is necessary to conduct effective development. Trump’s budget cuts for USAID will only increase reliance on IDCs that are erroneously viewed as capable of accomplishing specific objectives more effectively. The belief that for-profit contractors will be able to effectively initiate growth is willfully ignorant, in the face of the ample evidence that they rob increasingly large portions of money from the developing world for projects whose success or lack thereof has no bearing on the paychecks of the IDCs’ CEOs.
It is despicable that CEOs of aid contractors are content to eat luxuriously off money intended for those living on pennies a day, and Donald Trump’s proposed cuts will only further exaggerate the private-aid industrial complex. As USAID experiences further and further cuts, their staff will wane, allowing even less oversight of the aid contracting business which has shown itself to need oversight to prevent gross monetary fraud. Increased reliance on private development contractors does not just have ramifications for civilians abroad, for as Donald Trump sacrifices our nation’s soft power for political objectives, our own citizens will be forced to foot the bill of the inevitable cleanup efforts of the future.