William Easterly is a professor of economics at New York University and author of “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor.”
President Trump’s proposed budget includes steep cuts in foreign assistance. Aid proponents such as Bill Gates are eloquently fighting back. Gates said in Time magazine that “these projects keep Americans safe. And by promoting health, security and economic opportunity, they stabilize vulnerable parts of the world.”
The counter-terrorism argument for foreign aid after 9/11 indeed succeeded for a long time at increasing and then sustaining the U.S. foreign aid budget. However, the continued reliance on this national security argument by people such as Gates has now left aid extremely vulnerable to deep cuts, even while that argument has generated collateral damage in other areas. First, the link from aid to counter-terrorism never had any evidence behind it. As it became ever less plausible as terrorism continued, it set up aid for a fall. Second, the argument falsely generalized that the nationals of the poorest countries (or what Gates called more vaguely the “vulnerable parts”) were prone to terrorism, which has at least in small part contributed to today’s toxic xenophobia toward refugees and migrants from those countries.
Arguments for aid as national security policy began right after 9/11, and until now the argument was a bipartisan affair. George W. Bush announced an increase in U.S.foreign aid in 2002 with this language:
We must include every African, every Asian, every Latin American, every Muslim, in an expanding circle of development. … The United States will lead by example. We will increase our development assistance by $5 billion … As the civilized world [emphasis added] mobilizes against the forces of terror, we must also embrace the forces of good. By offering hope where there is none, by relieving suffering and hunger where there is too much, we will make the world not only safer, but better.
The Obama administration followed the same script. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said (a bit more wonkishly) in 2010: “Defense, diplomacy and development … must be mutually reinforcing.” The USAID website today (presumably not yet reflecting proposed cuts) says, “The United States is safer and stronger when fewer people face destitution.”
Unfortunately for these politically convenient arguments, the evidence for a link from poverty to terrorism never showed up. Though annual U.S. aid indeed increased from $8 billion before 9/11 to $18 billion afterward, studies since 9/11 have consistently shown that terrorists tend to have above-average income and education.
Even if there had been a link from poverty to terrorism, the “aid as counter-terrorism” argument also required the assumption that aid has a dramatic effect on the poverty of entire aid-receiving nations. Today’s proponents of aid no longer make the grandiose claims of aid lifting whole societies out of poverty. They are more likely to cite the successes of more narrow programs with more limited numbers of beneficiaries, as Gates does with his (correct) celebration of efforts against Ebola and AIDS.
As time passed, the aid-fighting-terrorism story became ever less plausible. Indeed, there has been a lot of aid effort in some crucial nations with little noticeable effect on poverty — or on violence and terrorism. Four of the nations on Trump’s original travel ban list — Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Syria — saw official foreign aid surge after 9/11. These four nations together received an annual flow of $1 billion in foreign aid from 1996 to 2000. After 9/11, they received an annual flow of $9 billion in foreign aid from 2002 to 2013. And whole books have been written about the disastrous record of the huge foreign aid program to still-violent Afghanistan. If that aid-as-security argument now fails, then it is not surprising that the support for aid collapses.
Even worse, the argument that aid will “stabilize vulnerable parts of the world” unintentionally paves the way for today’s resurgence of xenophobia. If you had argued for aid to keep the United States safe, then aid failures cause your argument to go into reverse. The United States is left unsafe, exposed to all those people coming from un-stabilized, vulnerable (not “civilized”) parts of the world. Now Bush’s old hopeful list of “every African, every Asian, every Latin American, every Muslim” is only a list of threats. The false generalization that portrayed huge classes of people as prone to terrorism scared Americans into increasing aid. Now it scares Americans into increasing xenophobic travel bans.
Today’s shifts in the U.S. political climate are causing big changes. Some opportunistic intellectuals may be tempted to overlook the larger train wreck to celebrate the victory of some pet argument they had long been making — “at last somebody is listening to me!” You might expect a longtime aid critic to celebrate the prospects of cuts in foreign aid. You would be wrong. I agree with Gates that there are some good programs, especially in health, that are likely to be a real loss for needy individuals if they are cut. There are other bad kinds of aid — especially official aid for corrupt dictators — but the cuts are unlikely to distinguish between good and bad aid.
Far more important, I lament how the aid narrative unintentionally reinforced xenophobia toward the same people that were the main intended beneficiaries of aid. Let’s transcend our pettier squabbles about aid to come together in affirming the equal dignity and worth of all persons, regardless of religion, income level or nation of origin.