Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

This is Not the Time to Cut Foreign Aid

Ruth Melkonian


October 24, 2008

A grave concern that is surfacing during America’s financial crisis, with all the bailout plans and on top of massive and ongoing US expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the prospect that the next administration will have much less financial and political capital to spend on combating poverty and promoting democracy and the rule of law internationally.

In the vice-presidential debate, disturbingly enough, Sen. Joe Biden, when questioned by the moderator as to what spending priorities would be cut due to our economic problems, mentioned only one specific area: foreign aid. Biden, who is universally regarded as a foreign policy expert and committed internationalist, said, “The one thing we might have to slow down is a commitment we made to double foreign assistance. We’ll probably have to slow that down” (Reuters, 10/2/08). The Obama campaign has been pledging to double aid to $50 billion by 2012; now, it seems clear, it is reconsidering.

Perhaps even worse, the McCain camp has not referenced foreign assistance at all in the debates or been willing to share on its website how much the US should spend in foreign aid.

This is discouraging on many fronts. The US has been adamantly using its hard power since 9/11 to try to influence the world. Its use of soft power (outside the remarkable increase of support for HIV/AIDS in Africa) is not what it could have been. The US has not significantly helped the UN meet its Millennium Development Goal of reducing extreme poverty by half by 2015. Nor has the US yet met the UN target of giving .7 percent of its GNP in aid. Government aid remains closer to .2 percent of America’s GNP. Last year, foreign aid for the entire year totaled less than $30 billion, while monthly the US spends $10 billion in Iraq alone.

This is not to say that US foreign-assistance spending should be increased uncritically. To be sure, foreign aid does not always produce the outcomes expected, nor is it necessarily effective in all places and in all forms. However, a prudent response is to reform US aid, not reduce it. Foreign aid, wisely spent, can clearly do much to reduce the spread of disease, help build infrastructure, increase crop yields, improve human capital via access to education and healthcare, and facilitate good governance and transparency, among other goals. Beyond its just and humanitarian rationale, foreign assistance helps the US pursue its economic, geo-strategic, and national-security purposes.

It is symbolically and substantively damaging to reduce foreign aid at a time when the international legitimacy of the US is seriously in question and the US continues with massive military outlays and intervenes in the economic meltdown with additional costly public expenditures. Given that the global economic crisis has been triggered in part by the reckless behavior of Americans, the US is partially responsible for what other nations are experiencing and will increasingly suffer as the recession cascades across borders. For the US to become isolationist yet again (as has been its tendency in times of economic stress) and look primarily to its own interests, particularly when it bears some responsibility for the economic duress of many other countries, is not only unjust and uncharitable but will lead to the further erosion of America’s standing in the world.

Now is certainly a legitimate time to be critically evaluating foreign assistance—to whom it should be given, when, how, and why. But it is troubling to find that one of the few things politicians in an election campaign are willing to admit is that foreign assistance merits a low level of priority. While Americans understandably feel exhausted by international expenditures of the hard-power variety, foreign assistance should not be neglected or become an easy scapegoat during a time of greater scarcity. The costs (both internationally and nationally) are far too great.

—Ruth Melkonian, Assistant  Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College

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