How to Talk About Foreign Aid Without Sounding Dumb

Colleen Curry

It’s time to speak up for foreign aid.

The United States spends less than one-tenth of 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on foreign aid that goes toward helping the world’s poorest people. It’s a small fraction of what the US has, but it saves millions of lives every year and helps create stability, prosperity, and health around the world and at home.

But this year, President Donald Trump has proposed making that fraction even smaller, cutting the foreign aid budget by 32% — an unnecessary and devastating measure that would lead to deaths and illness around the world.

Between now and October 1, Congress will decide whether to accept Trump’s proposal or keep foreign aid funded at current levels. Republicans and Democrats have both voiced opposition to the cuts — for bipartisan, common-sense, smart reasons we’ll explain below — but now we need to ensure that they follow through on that opposition.

Now is the time to voice your opposition to Trump’s cuts, explain to your friends, families, and online communities why it’s necessary to contact your representatives and say that we need to #StopTheCuts in order to achieve a world without poverty. Here’s what you need to know to convince them to support foreign aid:

Read More: 'Fiscal Calamity,' 'America Alone' and Other Harsh Words From Lawmakers for Trump's Budget Proposal

Donald Trump's proposed budget puts food funding at risk.
Image: USAID

What Is Foreign Aid, Exactly?

Foreign aid is a catchall term used to describe federal government funding for a number of different programs that help people overseas.

It’s broken down into four categories: development aid, which helps societies build foundations to prosper (more than half of development aid goes toward global health programs); military aid that helps countries pay for weapons or soldiers to enhance security; emergency aid, for things like famines and natural disasters; and political aid, for helping to ensure fair elections.

Read More: More Than 40 Senators Sign Bipartisan Letter Saying Foreign Aid Cuts Will Make ‘America Less Safe’

What Does the US Spend on Foreign Aid?

Some Americans, when polled, said they thought that 28% of the US budget went to helping other countries. But the real number isn’t even close to that. Want to know what it actually is?


Just 1% of the US federal budget goes to helping other countries. In 2015, that amounted to $49 billion out of a $4 trillion budget.

Read More: President George W. Bush: Foreign Aid Is Crucial to US Security & Morality

Image: Flickr/USAID

But Shouldn’t That Be Spent on Domestic Programs?

Some people argue for an “America First” policy that would devote all US funding back into the US, to help lift Americans out of poverty and enhance security. But this line of thinking ignores how interconnected the world is and how stability and prosperity abroad leads to stability and prosperity at home.

Without foreign assistance, countries without stable infrastructures and governments, without prospering economies or any jobs for citizens, become even less stable, vulnerable to military attacks or coups. People without jobs or food turn to violence. In today’s interconnected world, those problems abroad don’t stay abroad for very long; conflict in one part of the world inevitably spills over into conflict elsewhere.

Read More: The Details of Trump’s Proposed Foreign Aid Cuts Are Devastating

Will Foreign Countries Ever Stand on Their Own Two Feet If We’re Helping Them?

Actually, the opposite is demonstrably true: 11 of America’s top 15 trading partners were once recipients of US foreign aid.

Foreign aid helps create jobs and prosperity in the countries that receive it. These countries then begin trading with other countries, creating even more prosperity. Eventually, when a country’s productivity and purchasing power increases to a certain level, it can become a consumer of US goods and the promise of foreign aid comes full circle — the US ends up profiting.

Today, 95% of consumers live outside of US borders.

Image: Credit: USAID/Tanzania

So There Are No Valid Criticisms of Foreign Aid?

Almost all government programs could be better, including foreign aid programs. Smart, respected economists have criticized foreign aid programs for their lack of accountability and transparency, alleging that money gets lost in unsupervised contracts and the middle levels of foreign governments. They also argue that it can bolster corrupt governments that otherwise would be toppled by public anger.

While the structural problems of foreign could be improved, though, millions of lives are still being saved every year by health programs and food aid.

What About Other Countries - Why Don’t They Pay More?

The US spends more on foreign aid than any other country, dollar for dollar. But the US is also the richest country in the world. When measured by how much a country spends as a percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) – or the total money the economy makes every year — the US is near the bottom.

Back in the 80s, world economists and the UN figured out that if every wealthy country contributed 0.7% of its GDP to foreign aid, developing countries could get out of poverty. That’s less than 1% of the annual economic intake of a country. But the US has never come close to contributing that much. Some European countries like Sweden and Norway contribute more than 1% of their GDPs; the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, and Luxembourg all hit the 0.7% mark or go above it.

But among the world’s 28 wealthiest countries, the US ranks 20th for foreign aid contributions, giving just .17% of its annual GDP to help the rest of the world.

So, yes, while $49 billion is an enormous amount of money compared to other countries, the amount that the US gives to the rest of the world is disproportionately low. To cut it even further next year would make the goals of the UN impossible — and the dreams of many people in the global south out of reach.

Read More: These 5 Small African Countries Will Be Among the Hardest Hit by Trump’s Budget Cuts

What About Private Donors?

Private foundations and nongovernment organizations can help fill the gap left by shrinking foreign budgets, but they can never contribute enough to end extreme poverty. The UN has determined that $260 billion each year must go toward developing nations to end extreme poverty; right now, only about $160 is being spent by countries. That leaves a $110 billion gap that private foundations and corporations can’t fill.

Only governments can fill the $110 billion void, and only citizens can demand that their governments do that.

Who Decides Where the Money Goes?

Because the US government is a pretty sprawling enterprise, the dozens of foreign aid programs fall under many different departments, including the Departments of State, Treasury, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services.

Congress gets to approve how much money goes to each program when it creates the budget each year. Then, the heads of each agency ensure that the money gets funnelled to appropriate programs in efficient ways.

But ultimately, the people who decide where foreign aid money goes are the same people who send Congressional representatives to Washington to iron out the details: you.

American citizens decide how much foreign aid the US will spend in any given year. Through calls, emails, town halls, and even Tweets to representatives, Americans can let their elected officials know that foreign aid matters to them and to the future of the world.

Global Citizen hopes that we can #StopTheCuts this year and achieve a world without poverty by 2030. Now, you can help.