Amid budget crisis, a defense of foreign aid

August 3, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on U.S. foreign aid, in light of the crisis in Somalia — with opinion pieces by Sen. John Kerry, Fletcher School Professor Astier M. Almedom, Share Our Strength Founder Bill Shore,Wharton School Professor Stuart Diamond, and Executives Without Borders CEO Robert Goodwin.

At this time of budget crisis, a United States senator defending foreign aid might well be advised to get examined by a political consultant if not a mental health professional. But right now it’s more urgent than ever that those of us who believe in robust American leadership step up and articulate the dangers of American retrenchment. Many question whether we can afford foreign aid and development investments, but the reality – however hard to swallow – is that we can’t afford not to.

Energetic global leadership is a strategic imperative for America, not a favor we do for other countries. It amplifies America's voice and extends our reach. In a world growing more not less interdependent, slashing foreign aid and development investments is a formula for isolation and shrinking influence. America can't opt out of a networked world.

The drought in Somalia today is the most recent devastating example. We face tremendous foreign policy and national security challenges worldwide, from leading humanitarian responses to such famine; to helping countries manage peaceful, democratic transitions in the Middle East; to preventing violence, conflict and terrorism from engulfing key partners.

Is there a cost to taxpayers? Of course. But all of our foreign aid programs and foreign policy initiatives— from sending diplomats to Afghanistan to helping reverse the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa—barely make up 1 percent of the annual budget. It is a relatively small investment for such a great return. This year alone we will spend approximately $700 billion on our military. The entire international affairs budget is less than one-tenth of that. As former Secretary Gates once pointed out, if you took the entire Foreign Service roster, you could barely staff one aircraft carrier.

And yet our diplomats are serving on the frontlines of multiple revolutions and wars. They are making vital contributions in Afghanistan, and in Iraq they are planning the transition from a military mission to a diplomatic one so that we can cement the political progress that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives. Surely in a tax code spanning more than 72,000 pages of expenditures – many of which are proven to generate no economic activity – we can find the cuts to preserve our investment in reducing security threats, in opening markets for American businesses, and in creating opportunities for American leadership.

Last week, I introduced a bill that would help advance key diplomatic and foreign policy priorities worldwide. Building our nation’s civilian capacity and providing our diplomatic corps with the essential tools to succeed in the demanding jobs we continually require of them is essential. To get the job done, we need our diplomats.

As President John F. Kennedy pointedly articulated at the founding of USAID in 1961, “Widespread poverty and chaos lead to a collapse of existing political and social structures which would inevitably invite the advance of totalitarianism into every weak and unstable area. Thus our own security would be endangered and our prosperity imperiled.”

This is all too true.

Failed states are a leading indicator for future instability and conflict. We learned this hard lesson in Afghanistan, and we continue to learn this lesson from other countries today. We no longer have the luxury of isolationism as a fallback, though I don’t believe we really ever did. If we pulled all of our diplomats back to Washington, closed down all of our development programs, and proclaimed to the world that we wanted nothing more than to be left alone, those who want to do us harm would still find us, and our national security would be even more imperiled.

We can either pay now to help brave people build a better, democratic future for themselves or we will certainly pay later with increased threats to our own national security. In Africa, we are helping to midwife the birth of a new nation in South Sudan and to resolve the situation in Darfur. We are leading the fight against global challenges, like nuclear proliferation and climate change. And in countless communities around the world we are providing essential humanitarian assistance.

Why do we do this? Because it’s who we are. It’s in America’s DNA – from the Marshall Plan to our response to the earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti.

Do we need to do a better job of unabashedly sharing with the American people why we undertake humanitarian and development programs and what benefits we get from them? Yes. By showing the world that we comprehend, and share, their destiny we engender goodwill and strengthen critical partnerships. And of course we must keep working to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the programs we implement. We cannot rest on our laurels.

But on one point we must remain resolute: This is not time for America to pull back from the world. This is a time to step forward.

Sen. John Kerry is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has served in the U.S. Senate since 1985 and was the 2004 Democratic candidate for president.

In this roundtable:

Sen. John Kerry: Amid budget crisis, a defense of foreign aid

Astier M. Almedom: With Somalia,what should really scandalize the public

Bill Shore: A chronic political failure on humanitarian aid

Stuart Diamond: U.S. foreign aid: Business skills needed

Robert Goodwin: A new strategy for solving America’s foreign aid problem

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