The Budget Line Neither Party’s Willing To Defend: Foreign Aid

We're still putting our money into war, rather than peace and prosperity.

By Michelle Chen Feb 21, 2011

The country’s social safety net isn’t the only net that’s getting shredded in the budget battle. Somewhere in Senegal, the thin mesh that shields a poor family from a worldwide scourge faces an arguably deadlier cut.

Foreign countries are traditionally easy prey for deficit hawks; it’s much easier to take money away from people who can’t vote you out of office. That’s why, even though foreign assistance makes up a tiny sliver of the total budget, fiscal conservatives are busily spinning that little malaria net in Senegal into a virtual piñata for "tough choices" in the budget debate. And so masses of refugees, hungry children and HIV patients add up to the world’s most anemic sacrificial lamb–their needs reduced to the false and cowardly choice between domestic funding anxieties and distant humanitarian crises.

The disdain of many Americans toward foreign aid might make sense on the surface: Why build roads in some remote village when our own highways are crumbling? But Americans have a wildly distorted view of how our tax dollars are actually used for international humanitarian programs, Talking Points Memo reports:

In a recent Gallup poll, foreign aid was the only piece of the budget where a clear majority of Americans supported budget cuts. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they favored cuts to foreign aid, versus 37% who opposed such cuts. At the same time, over half of respondents opposed trimming any of the eight other budget items presented in the survey — including Social Security, education, and defense….

In a World Public Opinion poll conducted last November, respondents guessed, on average, that foreign aid spending represented 27% of the federal budget. To trim spending, the same respondents suggested that, on average, foreign should make up a slimmer 13% of the total budget, surely delivering massive savings.

The problem? Foreign aid is actually a minuscule 1% of the total budget. Even eliminating it altogether would do little to balance the budget or reduce the deficit.

Meanwhile Americans tend to underestimate military spending, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the Pentagon, along with Medicare and Social Security, consume so much of the budget the rest of the world gets barely a crumb.

Columnist Michael Gerson argues that lawmakers’ dismissal of humanitarian needs abroad, and the distorted stereotype that "foreign aid is thrown down a rat hole of corruption" leads to "a net subtraction from public seriousness on the deficit."

And while tweaking foreign aid outlays has a negligible impact on the federal balance sheet, it adds up to massive pain for those who can least afford it. Where public funds are most needed is where each dollar goes the furthest, yet ironically, this is also where lawmakers generally invest the least political or moral capital. Pennies a day have helped curb deadly but treatable diseases, mollified chronic hunger, and reduced preventable child and maternal deaths.

In a similar display closer to home, expenditures on basic income supports for America’s poor are, dollar for dollar, more cost-effective than tax breaks for rich folks (not to mention ess costly in blood and treasure than our disastrous wars).

But House Republicans’ vision of fiscal discipline, would kill food aid for an estimated 15 million people worldwide, further destabilizing areas like Haiti amid an escalating global food crisis. Another target for cuts is refugee aid in areas such as flood-ravaged, war-torn Pakistan, where, despite Washington’s direct role in breeding misery throughout the region, disaster victims evoke little sympathy from tightfisted politicians looking toward the 2012 elections.

Robert Zachritz of World Vision told the Washington Post that if GOP lawmakers push through their massive cuts to the International Disaster Assistance Fund, "if another disaster happens, a Haiti [earthquake] or a tsunami, we might not be able to respond."

Mere moral suasion probably won’t crack the budget-slashing resolve of House Republicans. But what about the Obama administration, which came into power partially on the promise of salvaging what’s left of America’s global moral influence?

The ONE Campaign, a global health and development advocacy group,supports Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget request as an improvement on the House proposal, but notes that the increase of just 3 percent in the International Affairs Budget leaves a disappointing gap for major anti-poverty programs. The Health Global Access Project, meanwhile, calls out the Obama administration for falling short on humanitarian commitments. 

"The administration’s new mantra is efficiency and there are efficiencies to be achieved. But efficiencies alone will not build new rural clinics, hire needed health workers, pay for newer, more effective but more expensive medicines," says Health GAP policy analyst and Northeastern University law professor Brook Baker, writing from South Africa.

"The president has promised that the U.S. would be engaging the world in a different manner," adds John Feffer, co-cirector of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. "But the budget numbers suggest otherwise. We are continuing to put our money where our military is, rather than where the pressing needs are: global poverty, health, threats like climate change."

The protest movements unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa show how budget politics operate with shockingly little regard for the pressing humanitarian needs and human rights struggles that hinge on a few congressional votes. Foreign aid has historically been abused in places like Egypt and Tunisia as a boon for oppressive dictatorships and a weapon against civil society.

Nonetheless, to the extent that foreign aid is always political, there are distinct reasons why a more just, targeted approach to humanitarian assistance can and should factor into the country’s geopolitical outlook. According to an analysis by the centrist Center for American Progress, the Republican budget axe hacks away all but the most destructive forms of aid:

While they are not touching the foreign military assistance for Egypt, they are cutting the Economic Support Fund by 10 percent, which would translate into a $25 million cut to Egypt’s economic assistance. If the House Republicans have their way, it would mean that just as Egypt moves toward democracy, American foreign aid, which was a running spigot during the previous regime, would dry up.

The $2 billion Washington poured into Mubarak’s authoritarian regime year after year bankrolled the exact opposite of the democratic ideals Obama championed for youth in Cairo in 2009. On their own, those same young people then challenged the U.S. to practice what it preaches abroad.

The U.S.could at least start to repurpose aid to Egypt toward programs that foster civil society, education and development initiatives that respect social and economic rights. Instead, balanced budget theatrics in Washington could undermine burgeoning democracy in Arab countries, advances against poverty and disease in Africa, and the plight of farmers in South Asia. But the country’s priorities are what’s really off balance.