U.S. Foreign Aid Cuts

Good news and bad news: It appears the U.S. Congress has finally found bipartisan consensus, but it’s on the dumbest imaginable response to the deficit — deep cuts in U.S. foreign aid and diplomacy. Thanks to the New York Times for shining a spotlight on these cuts with today’s front-page story. Both the Senate and House bills now moving through Congress would “cut spending across the board, and around the world,” the Times reports. A leader of the aid group Mercy Corps summed up the impact of the aid cuts nicely: “The budget impact is negligible. The impact around the world is enormous.”

These cuts are founded on three pillars of ignorance — misunderstanding of the amount of money, misunderstanding of the effects of the spending, and misunderstanding about the extent of poverty in the world and its impact. Look at them one by one.

1. Do the math. When Americans were asked in a poll less than a year ago how much money goes to foreign aid, the median response was 25 percent of the federal budget. When asked how much it should be, they said 10 percent. This has been consistent over recent years through a number of polls. The actual budget (before being cut) is only 1 percent.  Only 20 percent of Americans think foreign aid should be that little.

That 1-percent budget for foreign aid and diplomacy was $55 billion in fiscal year 2010, less than a tenth of the military budget. And that was the peak after a decade in which, post-9/11, both parties realized that engagement with the world mattered. Last year it dropped by $6 billion. Then in last April’s Chicken game over a government shutdown, it was cut by $8 billion, “the single largest cut to any one department under the deal…” (NY Times). Now the House and Senate are each proposing further multi-billion-dollar cuts for next year, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes as 16 percent for the State Department and 41 percent for humanitarian aid. The only sacred area exempt from cuts is $3 billion in foreign aid for Israel. (There is also a crazy proposal in the House of Representatives, unlikely to become law, that would cut U.S. funding for UN peacekeeping and make UN dues “voluntary.”)

2. Look at the effects. Diplomacy and foreign aid do things that military power cannot do. Indeed we’ve seen the limits of military power in the past decade, and with U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq in the coming months, who is expected to pick up the slack and exert ongoing U.S. influence there? The State Department.

The proposed cuts would devastate recent efforts to use “smart power” (a term attributed to Obama and Clinton in the NYT but properly credited to Harvard’s Joseph Nye), meaning that military power alone cannot effectively project American power around the world. Diplomacy and aid, along with intangibles such as our rhetoric, also influence the world’s powers and peoples. Then-secretary of defense Robert Gates even proposed taking money away from his own department to beef up the State Department. Unfortunately the United States is on a path in which we have only one tool, a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.

Some ignorant people claim that foreign aid is just money wasted, and doesn’t do any good in poor countries. Tell that to people living in poverty in Africa and South Asia, where child and maternal mortality rates have been cut dramatically in the past decade or two. Vaccination drives are working, infectious diseases are being contained, and AIDS medicines are reaching far more people in Africa thanks to the efforts of President Bush, pushed by evangelical Christian groups (foreign aid is not a Democrat issue).

3. Understand poverty. Many Americans are ignorant of the extent of poverty in poor countries. Lately there is a feeling that we have our own problems at home so we can’t afford to help people in other countries. This new isolationist sentiment is possible only because people do not see how desperate our fellow human beings are and how little it would take to help them. For example, Rep. Kay Granger from Texas criticized $250 million spent by the State Department to help Pakistan after devastating floods, since after all Americans also have floods. But the amount here is a less than a dollar per American and the Pakistanis’ situation is far more desperate than that of any flooded American. They are fighting for their lives, by the millions, with little or no government help, no savings, no infrastructure, everything wiped out — this in one of the world’s poorest countries, one of central strategic importance to the United States, the hotbed of Islamic militancy, the location of a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the source of many problems in next-door Afghanistan. We are officially spending nearly $100 billion (with a B) per year in Afghanistan, so picking on the $250 million (with an M) in Pakistan flood aid just makes no sense. And Rep. Granger can only say that because she has no idea what poverty in Pakistan really looks like and how different it is to be flooded out in a rich country versus a poor country.

Well, I’m a flag-flying patriot but sometimes I do wonder about our Congress. How can we ever advance the national interest when political rhetoric is founded on ignorance, and politicians whip up sentiment against foreigners who are gobbling up our hard-earned tax dollars for no good reason. Seriously people, you don’t have to be Professor Nye at Harvard University to see that slashing the State Department and foreign aid budget just ain’t “smart.”

9 Responses to U.S. Foreign Aid Cuts

  1. Agreed. And take a look at Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short piece last month in the 9/11 anniversary issue of the New Yorker regarding what the combination of the hammer in Afghanistan, and the cut in non-military foreign aid has done for Pakistan. Grim. He sees the radicalization of the public and the rise of Islamist groups instead of the pro-American development model of his childhood in 1960s and 70s Pakistan. Our shift from smart power to smart bombs and drones in the post 9/11 world has led us astray. Wilson back in 1917 worried that war would make Americans callous and dogmatic, even more than we were already from the deadly adventure in the Philippines. War (rather than aid) is, as Thomas Mann put it, a “cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”

  2. You are correct that Congress should know better, but perhaps they are simply reflecting a POV of the public. The American public, in aggregate, is ignorant but not stupid. Pundits and reporters love to illustrate and laugh at the public’s ignorance with budgetary items by illustrating how foreign aid is misperceived as a large percentage of the budget, whereas it’s relatively tiny. Yet in an era in which the American Empire is dropping Freedom Bombs in Libya; assisting Haitian earthquake victims with the US Navy; helping Japanese tsunami victims with members of the US Occupation Force; militarily occupying territory and managing construction (after all the destruction it created) in 2 Mideast nations in order to help with nation-building; and on and on, it’s very easy to see that the US Public in these polls clearly conflates much of the grotesque Dept. of Defense spending with Foreign Aid. Indeed the DOD pushes aid as part of its multi-platform mission in television ads intended to help recruit young people (better than showing the trauma of killing, being killed, and PTSD). There is a huge component of foreign aid (much of it to foreign militaries and in support of defense contractors) within the DOD, both direct and indirect. Please be aware of this and so less dismissive of poll responders. The true problem is with the polling and reporting, not the public.

    Instead of making fun of the public’s ignorance, serious reporters should push for better polling questions — which tend to be self-serving and limited — and dissect the Imperial DOD budget more clearly so the public is better educated about how we spend so much and get so little. Why are we still occupying Japan and Germany? Where is the fraud & waste? Why do we need to spend more than the sum total of the next 20 nations? And on and on.

    Let snarky “culture reporters” make fun of the public. Regards,

  3. Americans have no obligation to help the poor of the world. We can’t save everyone–Americans need to focus on saving America first. I don’t care how desperate foreigners are or how little it takes to help them, because those factors aren’t the point.

  4. I believe the reason that some people believe that foreign aid should be ten percent of the budget and others one percent is because humans in general have a very hard time comprehending large numbers and how much they matter. Knowing this it is hard to use the argument “most american’s believe it should be 10 percent” become much more difficult because people fail to comprehend a)how much money is actually necessary, and b) how much money 550 billion (10% percent of budget, if 1% is 55 billion) .

  5. This article is literally like it stated in the beginning “Good news and bad news:.” This whole article is an up and down pro and con for cutting spending back across the board. Let’s start with the pros; it’s good that the United States is cutting back on our budget because this allows us to get ourselves together so that we can help distribute money to other countries later on without being in debt. So in a long term perspective cutting back on spending and budgeting more wisely versus spending money liberally is one of the best alternatives.

    There are a lot of benefits of not investing a lot of money into other countries; however there are some bad outcomes cutting back and not distributing as much money. For example other countries are going to look at us and think we don’t understand their crisis and we’re selfish. Not only that but other countries are going to suffer without our contributions as a Super Power. This makes me upset personally because I personally believe we should not consider other opinions from those in the United States. We have to do what we have to do so we can be stable and solve crisis of our own. we can’t accomplish or do this if we keep hand feeding other countries. It’s sad that there are starving kids in Africa and other nations but we have starving Americans that we need to attend to. We cant keep spending money on things that we cant afford to keep spending it on. We’re not the same United States that was big balling and flossing money to other nations and still had the financial capacity to aid our own problems.With that said the best way to help others is to help ourselves.

  6. This article is absolutely ridiculous. The fact that one could be so ignorant of the reality we face is appalling. We are dealing with so many issues at home that we really can’t afford to be frivilously spending money on helping everyone else. What you say about “this new isolationist sentiment” is proposterous, the fact that I DO understand what others around the world are going through and I STILL believe that we can’t afford to help them right now shows that you don’t know what you are talking about. We need to focus on helping ourselves in the short-term so that we can help others in the long-term. I do not believe that these should be the only budget cuts, we should be cutting spending by trillions not billions and we should be cutting a lot of it from the military and spending abroad. When, and only when we are financially secure can we guarantee financial aid to our friends across the globe. The problem is that we treat our government differently than we treat our households. One doesn’t spend money that doesn’t exist, right? But our government DOES! Answer me this, if I’m sleeping in GODDAMN cardboard box, and the guy down the street sleeping on a bench asks me for money, how the hell am I supposed to help!? You don’t spend money that you don’t have. We should be focused on defending our country while we grow our economy, not attacking our enemies and helping everyone else. Honestly, how can we keep operating this way? We already have a national debt of more than $14 trillion! How can we keep spending money that we don’t even have? It is not the job of the government to feed starving African children when it can’t meet the expectations of the people on the major domestic issues at large. Hell, we can’t even afford to feed OUR OWN DAMN PEOPLE! Our economy can barely support OUR country, let alone OTHERS! You’re talking out your ass and it saddens me to see that people can actually agree with your ignorant statements. It is people like you who put Obama in office, a man who decided to focus on HEALTH CARE during a FINANCIAL CRISIS. Maybe one day you’ll grow up and learn how the world really works.

  7. I think Mr. Perry undercuts the value of his position by using phrases that attack the writer. Attacking arguments are fine but the ad hominem use of derogatory language is not just immature and bad taste, it actually diminishes the power of his legitimate points about the debt and the real priorities of doing something about poverty in America. The final attack on Obama begs the question of alternatives. Does Mr. Perry believe that McCain would have pursued a radical pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq? Only of the two main choices in 2008 only Obama campaigned to re-priortize spending in the direction Mr. Perry says would be good for the country. The financial crisis was addressed by the Obama administration and by the Bush TARP program. A economic collapse was avoided. Unfortunately serious banking regulation and even larger stimulus packages appear now, in hindsight, to have been needed. But we are frustrated as Mr. Perry is, and this is partly to do with the fact that we are connected to the fate of a global economy. The European banking crisis may actually become the key to our fortunes here, and even to the outcome of the 2012 election here. Without a bounceback in Europe (which appears unlikely) we wont have one here either and the White House may change hands. So, global economics is important, and the US by spending less than 1 percent on foreign aid can actually bring great benefit to the United States. I’d have Mr. Perry look at the ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES of the Marshall Plan, for instance, for a good example of how foreign aid can benefit the United States (and him). That program and much foreign aid is actually an investment in his future because of the tremendous number of tie-ins in the global marketplace. He need only look in his dresser draw at the labels of his clothing to see this reality looking back at him. I would end corporate welfare within America in order to create greater opportunity and employment at home. Perhaps we could agree on that. And perhaps he can retract the moments where he attacks the author rather than the ideas.
    -JA

  8. Brett Perry, in addition to being gratuitously offensive, is mistaken about a lot of things. Here’s one: The government is not a household. The government-household analogy is false. “We can’t spend money we don’t have” is an o.k. slogan for regulating household finances, but applying it inflexibly to the gov’t is a bad idea. There is a long-term debt and deficit problem, but cutting the aid budget, as the post says, is not the way to fix it. Incidentally, theo d has a point about DOD increasingly being involved in humanitarian operations, e.g. after natural disasters. Whether this has affected the polling results is an open question, but personally I doubt it. The public just thinks the US spends a lot more on aid than it does.

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