U.S. Foreign aid is a tricky issue to tackle, especially at a time when most Americans are misinformed about foreign aid spending. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, most respondents could not correctly estimate the percentage of the U.S. federal budget dedicated to foreign aid. On average, respondents believed that 26 percent of U.S. federal budget is given to foreign aid. In reality, U.S. foreign aid only accounts for 1% of the federal budget which really isn’t much once you realize it’s only 0.17% of our Gross National Income (Figure 1). At a time, when most Americans believe that we’re spending too much money on foreign aid, I believe that increasing the budget allocated for foreign aid is the way to go.
Apart from the obvious humanitarian reasons to give aid, there are more important benefits for the U.S. in particular. Bill Gates, Microsoft cofounder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, discusses the importance of aid for Americans in a recent op-ed for Time magazine. He starts by saying:
“Foreign aid is often in the hot seat, but today the heat is cranked up especially high. The United States government, one of the world’s most influential donors, is considering dramatic cuts to health and development programs around the world. I understand why some Americans watch their tax dollars going overseas and wonder why we’re not spending them at home. Here’s my answer: These projects keep Americans safe. And by promoting health, security and economic opportunity, they stabilize vulnerable parts of the world.”
Gates brings up an important point. It’s hard for us as Americans to see our tax dollars being spent in other countries. However, increasing aid is the way to go if we want to keep Americans safe without going to war. We need to spend less money on defense and invest more in peace-building, peacekeeping, conflict prevention and sustainable and manageable development in developing countries.
Moreover, Gates highlights another important benefit, particularly that of global leadership. Foreign aid reinforces America’s role in the global market. “Of our top 15 trade partners, 11 are former aid recipients. Aid is visible proof of America’s global leadership,” he states. However, this leadership role should not be taken for granted. According to Brookings institution , China more than doubled its foreign aid contributions from 2001 to 2013 . That’s huge. China increasing its foreign aid inevitably makes it more powerful and earns it the support of the recipient countries. If we don’t increase our foreign aid now, we leave China a vacuum to claim global leadership.
Recently, the Trump administration proposed a new budget with a $54 billion increase in defense spending and a 27 percent cut in the State Department’s foreign aid budget. Trump believes that “we need to stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us and to invest in our infrastructure … our tunnels, roads, bridges, and schools.” Here is the problem: if we look at foreign aid as charity work rather than an investment, then Trump’s conclusion makes sense. It would be economically more beneficial to spend this money in the U.S. However, Trump’s administration ignores several important facts: aid protects Americans, strengthens U.S. global leadership, prevents epidemics and helps maintain security and peace.
Even our military leaders seem to agree on the importance of foreign aid. As a response to Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid, 121 retired generals and admirals recently wrote a letter to Congress stating that U.S. programs “are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.” Moreover, back when Secretary of Defense James Mattis was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, he said: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department”—which runs many of America’s key programs—“then I need to buy more ammunition.”
It is time we realize the importance of foreign aid for the U.S. Not only should we stop the State’s Department foreign aid program from undergoing such substantial cuts but we must work on increasing the funds allocated to foreign aid. It is the safest way to protect Americans while strengthening and maintaining U.S. global leadership in a constantly evolving and dynamic world.