Cutting US foreign aid spending won’t make America great. Here’s why.

February 11, 2020

Why should Americans stand up for foreign aid? It’s cheap, it’s effective, and it helps make the US safer and wealthier. But that’s just the start.

1. It’s not going to balance the budget

Past research has shown that Americans think we spend about a quarter of the national budget on foreign aid. In reality, foreign aid spending is a drop in the budgetary bucket. 

On average, foreign aid accounts for just over 1% of the federal budget each year — in 2017 (most recent complete data), it made up 1.2%. According to USAID, in that year, $47 billion was spent in total on foreign aid disbursements, which comes out to roughly $144 per American for the year. For reference, in the same year the average American spent more money on candy ($150) and tobacco ($332). 

2. In fact, foreign aid spending boosts the economy

Low-and-middle income countries represent some of the fastest growing markets in the world. A 2015 PricewaterhouseCoopers report cited in 2019 by the World Economic Forum projects that, by 2050, the countries with the fastest growing economies will be Nigeria (5.4% growth), Vietnam (5.3%), Bangladesh (5.1%), India (4.9%), Philippines (4.5%), Indonesia (4.3%), and Pakistan (4.3%). Another report from the WEF cites Ethiopia as the current fastest-growing economy in Africa. 

Many of these countries currently receive the most US foreign aid spending, with Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Nigeria all on the top 10 list for spending in 2017. By helping people in these countries increase their own economic buying power, we can potentially increase our exports (and create more jobs here at home). 

shelter construction in South Sudan

In 2016, the Concern team and residents of a Protection of Civilians site in Bentiu, South Sudan, partnered to build more than 10,000 emergency shelters for displaced families before the rains came — all with the help of US foreign assistance. Photo: Kieran McConville

3. Foreign aid isn’t charity or a blank check for corrupt governments

Let’s address another common myth about foreign aid: Foreign assistance funds don’t represent charitable contributions, nor can they be used as a “blank check” by foreign governments. Most of America’s economic foreign aid is disbursed through US-based agencies, like USAID (the US Agency for International Development). These agencies then allocate funding to a mix of nonprofits (like Concern Worldwide) for key activities that directly benefit those most affected by crisis and emergency. 

True, some foreign assistance funds go directly to foreign governments, but this — like all of the foreign aid budget — is earmarked for defined projects and sectors. For instance, a 2017 payment to the Government of Pakistan was made by USAID specifically to fund the Sindh Basic Education Program. 

4. Foreign aid is heavily negotiated — to the US’s benefit

Foreign assistance spending is some of the most scrutinized spending in the federal government: The two top-ranked agencies in the Federal Invest in What Works Index are USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

What’s more, aid is a powerful bargaining chip for the United States. Organizations like USAID and MCC, keep close tabs on what is done with the money they deliver — and how effective that spending is. Agencies will also often negotiate aid contracts with governments in order to offset corruption or create systemic change to support improved social services and protections.

5. Foreign assistance keeps us safe, at a fraction of the cost of conflict

Military leaders are among the strongest advocates for non-military investments. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis even once told Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” 

As noted above, foreign aid is a bargaining chip that enjoys bipartisan and multisector support. Small investments that enhance stability, self-sufficiency, and good governance around the world lessen the chances of costly US military interventions down the road. 

6. Even in peacetime, an increasingly interconnected world carries more risk  

Every President in recent memory has faced a pandemic outbreak — AIDS, SARS, H1N1, Ebola. Overcoming these crises requires cooperation with and support delivered to other countries.

Epidemics, economic stagnation, and climate change know no borders and can’t be addressed with military power. Slashing diplomacy and foreign aid will make it more difficult to overcome these global challenges. 

foreign assistance nutrition

7. Foreign aid works

Over the past few decades, the world has seen incredible improvements in health, education and economic well-being. Great strides have been made against malaria, polio, tuberculosis and other curable diseases. Millions of people have lifted themselves out of poverty through increased education, improved agriculture, micro-financing and other programs that help the world’s poorest. 

Over the last 20 years, malaria diagnosis rates have been cut in half. A 2017 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report suggested that the annual number of infant and child deaths has dropped over the last three decades from 11 million to 6 million. The United States is responsible for almost half of the funding that goes into fighting HIV and AIDS — even a modest cut to that budget could result in an additional 5.6 million deaths by 2030 (bringing the mortality rate back to that of the peak of the epidemic). 

Most of these gains can be attributed in great part to the support of governments and international institutions. Between 2000 and 2014, US foreign aid spending on child health saved the lives of 3.3 million children. These investments save lives — cutting them would reverse this progress. 

How you can help

 If you feel strongly about this issue, please contact your congressional representative.  Here’s some sample email text you might find helpful:

Dear Representative/ Senator,
I believe in the importance of maintaining funding for foreign aid, and strongly urge you to use your position to protect the funds our country sets aside to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
Foreign aid makes up just 1% of the federal budget, but makes a huge difference to poor communities around the world struggling to better themselves. It helps keep us secure and boosts developing economies — which in turn brings benefits back to our own economy.
Helping others in need is the right thing to do, and I ask that you ensure foreign development aid is maintained as a budget priority this year and in the years to come.
Yours sincerely,

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