Two weeks ago, I wrote about the troubling signs of bipartisan support in favor of U.S. foreign aid cuts – cuts that threaten to undermine the remarkable impact that less than 1% of the U.S. budget has on improving the lives of the world’s poorest. Today brings mixed news, and it leaves me both hopeful and frustrated.
First, the good news: last week, the House introduced H.R. 3159, also known as the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2012. Introduced by Reps. Howard Berman, (D – CA-28) and Ted Poe (R – TX-2), the Bill has strong bipartisan support, with thirty co-sponsors spanning the widest reaches of the ideological spectrum. The Bill seeks to enhance the accountability and transparency of U.S. foreign aid programs through two major reforms. First is a uniform set of metrics for monitoring and evaluation: it guides the President, Department of State, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Department of Defense to
“…evaluate the performance of United States foreign assistance programs and their contribution to policy, strategies, projects, program goals, and priorities undertaken by the Federal Government, to foster and promote innovative programs to improve the effectiveness of such programs, and to coordinate the monitoring and evaluation processes of Federal departments and agencies that administer such programs.”
Second is the establishment of a website “to make publicly available comprehensive, timely, comparable, and accessible information on United States foreign assistance programs.” The website enhances the existing Foreign Assistance Dashboard to include information on a program-by-program and country-by-country basis, as well as “country assistance strategies, annual budget documents, congressional budget justifications, actual expenditures, and reports and evaluations for such programs.”
H.R. 3159 signals that Democrats and Republicans alike understand the value of putting resources into proper evaluation of programs in order to prioritize efficiency and effectiveness. It also recognizes that both Congress and the American public have the right to know where foreign aid money is being spent, and how.
Contrast this approach with those taken by the Republican candidates for President during Tuesday’s primary debate in Las Vegas. An audience member asked the candidates:
“The American people are suffering in our country right now. Why do we continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?”
The answers prompted sustained applause from the audience:
Rick Perry: “I think it’s time for this country to have a very real debate about foreign aid….and I think it’s time for us to have a very serious discussion about defunding the United Nations…”
Mitt Romney: “Part of [foreign aid] is humanitarian aid around the world. I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people…we’re spending more on foreign aid than we ought to be spending…”
Ron Paul: “On foreign aid: that should be the easiest thing to cut. It’s not authorized in the Constitution that we can take money from you and give it to particular countries around the world. To me, foreign aid is taking money from poor people in this country and giving it to rich people in poor countries and it becomes weapons of war…I would cut all foreign aid. I would treat everybody equally and fairly.”
Michele Bachmann: “Cutting back on foreign aid is one thing; being reimbursed by nations that we have liberated is another…we should look to Iraq and Libya to reimburse us for part of what we have done to liberate these nations…”
Why did the attack lines on foreign aid spending resonate with the audience? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think there are two answers. One is that the American public, according to a 2010 poll, thinks that the U.S. government spends nearly 25% of the federal budget on foreign aid, when the actual amount spent is less than 1%. Even if this poll overestimated the differences, it still speaks to a concerning level of misinformation about foreign aid spending that is being exploited by the Republican candidates. Second is the sustained debate in this country about the need for vast reductions to the soaring national debt. It connects back to the “compassion fatigue” argument – that in times of uncertainty, fatigue sets in vis-à-vis issues that seem vexing and impossible to fix.
However, some fairly astonishing progress has been made recently due in large part to the benefits of effective, accountable aid programs. For one, we recently blogged about Action Aid’s report about reductions in aid dependency among the world’s poorest countries by an average of one-third. Additionally, this week, the World Health Organization announced that malaria deaths worldwide have declined by 20% over the past decade.
When Ron Paul says that foreign aid becomes weapons of war, when Michele Bachmann argues that Iraq and Libya should reimburse us for our actions, and when Mitt Romney thinks the Chinese should handle funding for humanitarian aid, all Americans should be concerned. If this country claims to be exceptional – a beacon of hope and freedom to those less fortunate around the world through both example and deed – we must recognize that foreign aid programs are some of our greatest weapons of all; they are weapons of peace.
This understanding has permeated similar debates among our allies. Reassuringly, when the UK and Australian public pushed back at their governments’ proposals to cut foreign aid, both governments – one conservative, one more liberal – ring-fenced their aid budgets. The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act’s provisions might not make for as captivating of rallying cries as those uttered at the debate, but they represent steps toward building a more robust, effective aid program. We remain determined that this belief in foreign aid can also come to dominate the debate in the U.S., and we urge all those who feel outraged by these comments to join the fight to dissuade our politicians from promoting such reckless indifference for the plight of the world’s poorest people.