Congress and Foreign Aid

As reported in a story by the New York Times, unprecedented cuts to America’s global investments are currently being considered by the United States Congress. The House is proposing cuts of $12 billion, or 20 percent of the president’s request for 2012, while the Senate is proposing cuts that are smaller but still potentially devastating. Without these vital investments, substantial progress made in the fight against disease and poverty over the last decade will be jeopardized. Sustaining significant investments in building a better world is critical to supporting America’s ideals and protecting America’s interests in a turbulent 21st century.

Over sixty years ago, President Harry Truman successfully made the case to the country that foreign assistance is a vital investment in America’s long-term security: “Our armed forces, can afford us a measure of defense. But real security can come only from building the kind of world where men can live together in peace.” More recently, President George W. Bush launched a bold initiative against AIDS that has since contributed to saving over a million lives. Recent polling demonstrates that nearly three-quarters of Americans think that providing aid is important, particularly because of these kinds of successful life-saving interventions. Yet current levels of foreign assistance, even before the proposed cuts by Congress, represent just half of the share of the U.S. budget that was devoted to foreign assistance in 1985 when Ronald Reagan was president.

Despite facing serious economic challenges, other nations around the world continue to view foreign assistance as an investment that is too essential to cut in the way that Congress is now contemplating. Despite facing a severe economic crisis and an unprecedented natural disaster, Japan is proposing to increase its levels of foreign assistance. So are other major countries which are currently facing fiscal crises, such as the Conservative-led government in the United Kingdom. China is also making a concerted effort to ramp up its foreign assistance across the globe. Many countries around the world, which have traditionally looked to America for leadership and vital assistance, will increasingly turn to other nations for leadership if the cuts currently being contemplated by the Congress become law.

Although these cuts to America’s investments around the world should be resisted, smarter aid is an essential tool for increasing its ultimate value. Multilateral contributions are often better leveraged investments because they can catalyze contributions from other nations and can have lower overhead than comparable bilateral programs. Expanded transparency in aid allocation could also enhance the impact of U.S. assistance dollars. The United Kingdom recently committed to more closely link its assistance to the level of transparency in recipient nations, a principle which the Millennium Challenge Account now utilizes and which could be more widely adopted.

America’s international investments support the broader goals of security that President Truman highlighted in an earlier age. While there should be vigorous debate about how best to spend the limited resources that the United States allocates for foreign assistance, it does not make sense to try to balance the budget through devastating cuts in an area that represents less than one percent of overall expenditures. Congress should reconsider its current approach and look instead to build on the bi-partisan commitment demonstrated over the last decade to invest in a better global future.