Today’s front-page story in the New York Times paints a grim picture for the U.S. foreign aid budget:
“As lawmakers scramble to trim the swelling national debt, both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have proposed slashing financing for the State Department and its related aid agencies at a time of desperate humanitarian crises and uncertain political developments. The proposals have raised the specter of deep cuts in food and medicine for Africa, in relief for disaster-affected places like Pakistan and Japan, in political and economic assistance for the new democracies of the Middle East, and even for the Peace Corps.”
Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), the Chair of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee (which oversees the U.S. foreign aid budget), justified the impending cuts by implying that current foreign aid spending often does not fall in line with fiscal responsibility or American security interests:
“She recalled a State Department envoy’s informing her of $250 million in relief to Pakistan after last year’s devastating floods. ‘I said I think that’s bad policy and bad politics,’ she said in an interview at her office on Capitol Hill. ‘What are you going to say to people in the United States who are having flooding?’”
To anyone asking that question, we say this – we live on a fundamentally connected planet, and like it or not, what happens in Pakistan has an impact on our security, our health, our economy and our humanity. It is both morally right and in our interests to see that our country is part of the wider world, and behave in ways that live out our principles. 20 million people were affected by the flood, it caused $43 billion in damages, and stretched to the limit a government and people who are vital to our long-term interests in fighting terrorism and creating a safer world.
We simply do not accept that slashing aid spending is the fiscally responsible thing to do.
A few facts bear repeating:
- The United States spends only 0.2% of total Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid, far less than the vast majority of OECD countries.
- The American public enormously overestimates the amount of money actually spent by the U.S. Government on foreign aid
- As the Times article explains, and as the chart below indicates, though U.S. foreign aid spending has increased in absolute terms from $24.23 billion in 1977 to $34.72 billion in 2011, it has fallen in relative terms from 1.6% to 0.95% of the budget over the same period.
U.S. Foreign Aid Since 1977, as a % of the Federal Budget
Source: Congressional Research Service, as displayed in the New York Times
Moreover, this issue has transcended partisanship. Although the Republican-controlled House has proposed deep cuts across the board to President Obama’s FY2012 foreign aid request, the Democrat-controlled Senate has also proposed cuts. In today’s toxic political climate in Washington, it seems reassuring – indeed, miraculous – when both parties manage to put partisanship aside to compromise on an important political or economic issue. It can therefore only be called shameful that one of the few issues in which both parties agree is one that could “gravely erode not only America’s influence but also its moral standing as a generous nation in times of crises.”
As Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, recently argued, “No one can reasonable claim that the budget crisis exists because America spends too much on bed nets and AIDS drugs. Our massive debt is mainly caused by a combination of entitlement commitments, an aging population and health cost inflation. Claiming courage or credit for irrelevant cuts in foreign assistance is a net subtraction from public seriousness on the deficit.”
Yet, as I read through some of the comments to the Times article today, Gerson’s argument seems to be the minority point of view. One commenter pled: “Bring all the money home. Let our cities rebuild. Forget helping those who can’t help themselves.” Another said: “Forget about the world. Keep our money here!!!!!”
These impassioned pleas to slash the aid budget remind me of another article posted on the Times this past weekend. Entitled “Becoming Compassionately Numb,” Benedict Carey describes the cognitive forces that contribute to human empathy for a person, for a country, or for a cause. Even in less challenging times, “people generally find it harder to extend empathetic concern to a nation that to a neighbor…people often show far more compassion for an individual than for a dozen, or 100, or an entire region.” However, in times of uncertainty, “compassion fatigue” tends to set in: “fatigue often results ‘when you’re seeing the same problems repeatedly, when they’re chronic, and when the outcomes are not good.’”
This article is so compelling precisely because it recognizes that sentiments like widespread support for aid cuts are rooted in complex cognitive instincts, instincts that stem from issues of genuine concern (be it unemployment, debt crises, or Medicare costs). Nonetheless, we live on an interconnected planet where our short and long-term interests are intimately bound up with the short- and long-term interests of everyone else in the world. To turn our backs on the plight of the world’s poorest in the name of fiscal responsibility is, simply put, irresponsible.