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.
Given the current budget challenges, famine in Somalia and recent discussions about restricting foreign aid, America is at a crucial nexus for looking at its overall framework of aid implementation.
One of the greatest strengths of the United States is the compassion of the American people. We are the most generous nation on earth in our support of helping those in need, from the earthquake in Haiti to famine in Somalia. When channeled correctly, this compassion can be an incredible force for good. Many times, however, our good intentions do not achieve the desired result.
There are many examples of misguided responses—jackets sent to warm climates, pork products sent to Muslim nations. During the Afghanistan War, I was a logistics director for USAID responsible for getting aid to civilians affected by the conflict. On one occasion an American town told us they bought an expensive ambulance and wanted the government to transport it to Afghanistan. We had to refuse, because there were no parts or maintenance available for a General Motors ambulance in Afghanistan. Those looking to donate the vehicle were upset, and the request moved up the ranks from their congressman to the White House. Ultimately the ambulance was transported. I don’t know what ever happened to that vehicle, but I do know it provided no benefit to the Afghan people.
What we see in America is an aid dichotomy: an ardent individual generosity, and yet so little public support for foreign aid. This really hit home recently when I attended a town hall in my hometown of Ft. Myers, Florida. The congressman asked attendees for ideas on how solve our budget and fiscal problems. The most popular ideas? Getting rid of all assistance to Pakistan and dramatically slashing all foreign aid programs. Many had misconceptions about the size of our foreign aid budget (it’s currently less than 1 percent of our entire budget) and attached no consequences to our world image and influence for cutting such aid.
It is true that, like the individuals’ money spent on the ambulance, government money in the form of foreign aid can go to waste. In Iraq, we allocated $300 million of the $18.6 billion of reconstruction funds for the building of 300 new clinics—and then we awarded the contract to a U.S. company with no previous experience in Iraq. Due to their security requirement for protecting U.S. company personnel, the cost per clinic doubled, and their poor performance led to only 4 clinics being built. For all of the money spent, little benefit was seen.
Yet when spent correctly, the benefits of foreign aid can be enormous. In 2003, I was working with the Iraqi Ministry of Health. When we first arrived, the ministry was on fire and was looted down to its electrical sockets with 1,500 employees waiting outside for someone to tell them what to do. We used about $2 million to hire Iraqi general contractors and artisans to rebuild and refurbish two 11-story buildings. The place provided much needed jobs, looked beautiful and created a buzz of positivity at the ministry—and this at a time when creating a positive response to U.S. involvement was crucial.