Who Does Foreign Aid…Aid?
In the midst of terrorist attacks and domestic economic debates, foreign aid and its implementation has not been a prioritized talking point in America’s election this upcoming November. However politicians on both sides of the aisle have stated the importance of foreign aid throughout recent history. In April, even rock star Bono appealed to the senate, encouraging senators to increase foreign aid expenditure. So is foreign aid really that important? If so, why has it been minimally discussed in debates for the presidential bid this year?
In the broadest sense of the phrase, foreign aid is defined as “assistance (as economic aid) provided by one nation to another”. Throughout history is has allowed the United States to have a stake in the political decisions of other countries, curb global epidemics, create wealth in other countries, among other results. It is no secret that the amount of aid the US gives to each country often directly correlates with our interests there. We have also engaged in humanitarian foreign aid to build relationships with other governments. In their article, Benjamin Goldsmith, Uysaku Horiuchi, and Terence Wood argue that foreign public opinion is favorable toward the United States when we “do good” in other countries, which benefits Americans abroad and our foreign policy in the long run. However while foreign aid can be a great tool and demonstrates the American values of creating a more prosperous, free world, it is also a topic of large contention.
Foreign aid is not always used effectively. In 1987, Ronald Reagan made a speech opposing the mismanagement of foreign aid funds, stating “with this money we bought a yacht for Haile Selassie”. Since this time, more safeguards have been instituted to ensure the responsible spending of foreign aid funds. To increase transparency in foreign aid spending, a new official government website reports all foreign aid data expenditures and breaks down funding by country and type of aid assistance. Development projects have also been increasingly contracted out to third party organizations that have greater oversight capacity to manage projects funded by foreign aid. So while there is still a margin of error and room for improvement, foreign aid spending has become much more responsible since Reagan’s speech in 1987.
Regardless of these changes in implementation, foreign aid is a highly unpopular concept. In 2014 the US gave a total of 32 billion dollars in foreign aid to other countries. While this sounds like a large amount, it was only 0.19% of the US national income. The US gives the most foreign aid in dollar value, however we fall short of generous on a global scale in percent of national income. Sweden gives the most percentage of foreign aid, with 1.1% of their national income. In reality the US is average in its foreign aid expenditure, relative to national income. However Americans do not perceive aid this way. The Kaiser Family Foundation polled Americans and found that on average they believed 26% of our federal budget goes to foreign aid—more than all of military spending, education, transportation, and veteran’s benefits put together.
Considering these misconceptions about foreign aid, it is easier to understand why an important topic like foreign aid, so capable of shaping international opinion of the US, has not been a greater priority in election 2016. Both candidates address their foreign aid positions on their websites. Hillary Clinton refers to foreign aid as a component of her formula for “smart power” in her statement “we have to use every pillar of American power – military might but also diplomacy, development aid, economic and cultural influence, technology, and the force of our values, that is smart power.” Donald Trump directly mentioned aid in his bid announcement when he stated “It is necessary that we invest in our infrastructure, stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us and use that money to rebuild our tunnels, roads, bridges, and schools […].” By “countries that hate us”, Trump is referring to Pakistan and Egypt, two of the largest recipients of foreign aid. However most—almost half—of the aid we give to each of these two countries is categorized for “peace and security”. That is what can be so confusing about foreign aid. There is no specification within the term for what is given in military aid, and what is given in humanitarian and infrastructure assistance.
President Obama has proposed that foreign aid should be combined with the defense budget, since the multifaceted wellbeing of other nations and their citizens is vital to America’s national security. With this assertion by our sitting president and the statements made by both president-elects of America’s two largest parties, we can conclude that aid cannot be supported by the American people unless it is framed as a power-inducing factor to America’s national security. To revisit my initial question regarding foreign aid’s nonexistence in presidential debates this past election, what I least expected in starting this research has seemed to be true—foundationally, foreign aid is a nonissue in this election, with both candidates viewing it as a similar tool, from different sides of the aisle.
It could also be the case that recent events in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, and Orlando, and the nativist sentiments that followed, do not allow for discussion of spending more money on aid that would not directly result in greater safety for Americans. However Bush’s support of PEPFAR to reduce the AIDS epidemic, Obama’s “Power Africa” program, America’s support of other countries after national disasters, and funding to make elections in budding democracies more transparent are efforts that do not go unnoticed globally. By framing foreign aid as solely an endeavor for power, we may miss out on opportunities to make deeper partnerships, greater developmental advancements, and participate in the successes of lesser-developed nations. While it is strategic to use foreign aid to make America more powerful, it is just as beneficial in the long run to use our power to promote—and fund—aid projects that reflect American founding ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness beyond our own borders. To our president-elects, it may be time to debate aid, and all categories of it, more in-depth. After all, foreign aid matters, and not just to those who vote for you.