The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The amorality and stupidity of eviscerating foreign-aid spending

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In President Trump’s so-called skinny budget, he eviscerated the State Department’s budget and foreign-aid spending. As to the former, perhaps Trump’s recent recognition of the need for diplomatic efforts (with NATO, China, etc.) will teach him that American “soft power” is a corollary to hard power. The former without the latter can be feckless; the latter without the former leaves us binary options (e.g. consent or war).

As to foreign-aid spending, President George W. Bush, whose creation of a massive anti-AIDS program aimed at Africa saved millions of lives, recently reminded us of the value of such spending, which amounts to less than one percent of our federal budget: “Look, we can’t solve every problem. And I would tell the person who’s out of work, hopefully there’s enough aid there to help you transition. But, you know, the idea of turning our back on a pandemic that would’ve wiped out an entire generation of people, I don’t think is in the spirit of the United States.” He explained: “When you have an entire generation of people being wiped out and the free world turns its back, it provides a convenient opportunity for people to spread extremism. I believe in this case that it’s in our national security interests as well as in our moral interest to continue funding this program.”

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Trump might want to consider the positive reaction to use of force for humanitarian reasons in Syria. If he is willing to use military power to achieve ends that enhance U.S. standing in the world, why not expend many fewer dollars to stem or prevent humanitarian disasters and political and economic collapse elsewhere?

Perhaps he and his neophyte advisers are under the impression that government monies are unnecessary so long as there are private philanthropic sources. Well, take it from Melinda Gates, who along with her husband sits atop the world’s largest foundation and describes how aid has transformed one country by, among other things, expanding access to contraception. “Indonesia has strategically used foreign aid to transform itself from a poor nation into a middle-income one. I was there to talk about the role that smart investments in contraceptives have played in the transformation,” she recently wrote. She continued:

Many people don’t realize the role contraceptives play in building a more stable and prosperous world . . . . When I started looking at the data, I learned that contraceptives are actually one of the greatest anti-poverty innovations the world has ever seen.
Consider the fact that 50 years ago, fewer than one in 10 Indonesian women were using family planning tools. The average Indonesian woman had five or six children, and she was raising them in extreme poverty.
Then, with support from donor nations like the U.S., Indonesia implemented a hugely successful family planning program. In just one generation, access to contraceptives skyrocketed to over 50%. Most women decided to have just two or three children. More of those children were able to stay longer in school, more women were able to work outside the home, and prospects for families across the country began to improve.

Gates is particularly concerned with cuts in assistance to family planning under the recently restored Mexico City policy, but her point is a broader one. No private foundation can match the resources of the U.S. government. No military maneuver could have been as effective in developing a pro-Western, peaceful country.

Since this seems to be the week in which Trump throws policy after policy overboard, perhaps he can dispense with cuts to foreign aid. No single action would be more counterproductive to U.S. international interests and security than cutting foreign aid.