What We Do Overseas Determines How Well We Live Here

May 1, 2017

On March 16, the Administration released topline details for its FY18 budget, which included a 31 percent cut to the State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The international development community is reeling from the notion of ending programs that save lives, keep America safe, promote economic development, and demonstrate moral leadership in the world. 

Abroad, our key allies ask why we would curtail funding when we have been at the forefront of global gains, establishing ourselves as world leaders in areas such as combating HIV/AIDS. As a result of President George W. Bush’s signature global health initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), 12 million people around the world are alive today. Thanks to Feed the Future, 18 million children have received assistance to improve their nutrition, reducing childhood stunting up to 40 percent in targeted countries. In just four years, Power Africa has leveraged more than $52 billion in private and public sector investments to help generate nearly 30,000 megawatts of electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Children now study under lights, hospitals have power for life-saving operations, and American businesses have new opportunities for investment.

In light of all of the above, why would the Trump Administration recommend such drastic and disproportionate cuts to foreign aid? Some say this is an isolationist and uncaring regime. Others suggest the President is responding to his base and cutting programs that his constituents don’t care about given their own economic hardships. 

There is a third, less discussed possibility. That this is an Administration with very clear priorities to reduce the deficit and increase military spending. With those two priorities, choices need to be made. There aren’t enough resources to support all foreign assistance programs everywhere, all the time, forever. The Administration needs to prioritize, economize, and invest in the programs where there is evidence of a solid return on that investment.

The international development community now needs to rise to this challenge and inform the Administration and Congress’s choices around funding for global development and humanitarian assistance. Development resources must always be spent with the greatest amount of transparency and accountability for the greatest positive impact. Impact should be defined as bettering the lives of people around the world, ending poverty and hopelessness, and, through that process, creating stable trading partners, making the world safer, and demonstrating our core humanitarian values.

So which are these programs? It is easier to say which programs they are not. They are not programs that are designed in isolation from the people they are meant to assist. They are not programs that the host country government doesn’t own or understand. They are not programs that look for short-term solutions when only longer-term engagement will do. They are not programs that make the case for their existence by claiming good things are accomplished instead of presenting evidence of their success. They are not programs with budget overruns, missed deliverables, and weak leadership.

U.S. interests are well-served by a democratic, peaceful, and stable world. Many U.S. citizens are not familiar with foreign aid or how it works, but everyone understands the importance of feeding your family, caring for your sick child, accessing life-saving medicine, and undertaking meaningful employment for a living wage. For “America First” to succeed, we need to look closely at how interconnected domestic and international realities are. Foreign aid – and the expertise generated through global development – have created innovative solutions to complex problems found in other countries, and yet many of these solutions are applicable in U.S. communities where entire generations are lost to crime, unemployment, and poor health. We need to leverage international experience for domestic results. Adversity breeds opportunity, and in a tight budget climate we have an opportunity to think differently about how we undertake foreign assistance, as well as how we link it back to our communities here at home that also need support. 

As the Administration sets out its priorities through this budget, and as Congress appropriates resources, perhaps the most important thing to consider is that what we do overseas determines how well we live here.