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Foreign Aid: Let’s Not Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

In western Ethiopia, refugee youth participate in the food distribution in the camps where they live.
USAID/Flickr

On March 16, President Trump announced his desire for significant cuts to US foreign assistance. By making huge cuts to many federal agencies, including 28% cuts to the State Department, President Trump suggests that he could free up funding for the Department of Defense in 2018.

In addition to these cuts, Politico reported on March 28 that the Trump Administration sent a memo to key members of Congress in late march requesting substantive cuts to foreign aid in 2017, too.

The President’s budget requests for 2017 and 2018 have sparked a strong dialogue about the importance of foreign assistance. A hundred and twenty retired generals and admirals have weighed in with Congress calling foreign assistance vital to national security. And over 100 faith leaders joined together to draft a letter in opposition to cuts to foreign assistance citing verses of scripture that call for Christians to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and provide shelter to the homeless.

On March 28, the House Foreign Affairs Committee hosted a hearing about the role of foreign aid. Led by Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), the hearing emphasized that substantive cuts to foreign assistance greatly endanger the security, health and future prosperity of America.

As Chairman Ed Royce explained:

“Two weeks ago, the Administration presented its budget blueprint – or ‘skinny budget’ – which proposes significant reductions to the programs and operations of the State Department and Agency for International Development, and the elimination of several independent agencies. Being ‘skinny,’ this budget raises more questions than it answers.  But here is what we do know…

While it proposes an overall cut of some 32%, the budget ‘protects’ several programs that enjoy strong congressional support, including for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and vaccines. Funding for embassy security and security assistance for Israel are maintained at current levels. These are good priorities.

But I’m concerned about how cuts would impact other priorities – including efforts to combat terrorists, poachers and human traffickers. US leadership was key to stopping Ebola in West Africa, and continued engagement is needed to address future threats before they hit our shores. And many are rightly worried about how proposed cuts will impact humanitarian assistance at a time when more than 65 million people have been displaced by conflict and famine looms in four countries."

The committee heard testimony from three witnesses: Dr. Stephen Krasner of the Hoover Institution, Danielle Pletka of American Enterprise Institute, and Nicolas Burns of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Ambassador Burns in particular highlighted that foreign aid and diplomacy can prevent costly and bloody conflicts from taking place, citing Secretary of Defence Mattis’ statement in 2013, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately. So I think it’s a cost benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”

Many members of Congress spoke to the importance of making aid effective. Chairman Ed Royce explained that, "Just as aid can’t be an entitlement for those overseas, it shouldn’t be an entitlement here at home. This includes food aid, which for too long has been treated as an entitlement for some shippers, rather than as a humanitarian program meant to save lives."

References were made to instances of “waste” within aid and a witness encouraged that funding be reserved for programs with the greatest impact.

This line of thinking is dangerous as it leads to slashing budgets without considering possible reforms. While it is inevitable in any budget — national, or even corporate — that some funding achieves greater impact than other funding, the United States Congress has made incredible progress in making aid programs more efficient and effective.

The past few years have seen the passage of landmark bills like the Water for the World Act, Electrify Africa Act, and Global Food Security Act that have streamlined and improved America’s development assistance. The Water for the World Act, for example, required that aid dollars for water and sanitation be spent in countries that have the greatest need. This reprioritization, coupled with the other policy changes proposed within the legislation, helped provide safe piped water to 2.5 million people in Indonesia at negligible additional cost to U.S. taxpayers. American aid is getting better year on year. Funding cuts to these essential programs would unravel the progress set in place by legislation like the Water for the World Act.

Efficiency and lives impacted must be the gold standard for American foreign assistance. The real question at hand is whether we can best achieve this standard with thoughtful debate and reform-focused legislation or by taking a billy club to foreign assistance.

Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, shared the example of the UN, saying that while it needs reform “we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater” because the organization can be a “force multiplier.”

Addressing global challenges like hunger and disease should be nonpartisan issues. Congress must remain focused on how the United States can impact the most number of lives at the lowest cost. Food aid reform and the Reinforcing Education Accountability in Development Act, for example, would help strengthen America’s current foreign assistance programs, helping taxpayer dollars save more lives in the developing world.

Congress must keep a reform mindset, and allow aid to go further.