"To the American People" – Why Foreign Aid and Development Spending is Good for America
Published March 22, 2017
By J. J. Messner
Fund for Peace – Global Square Blog
Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, commented in a March 19 interview on Meet the Press,
"Could I, as a budget director, look at the coal miner in West Virginia and say, 'I want you please to give some of your money to the federal government so that I can give it to the National Endowment for the Arts?'”
This quote boiled down the general opposition not only to funding the arts, but also to funding diplomacy, aid, and development. It assumes, perhaps accurately, that the archetypal “coal miner in West Virginia”, symbolic to this argument, would ask himself “what’s in it for me?” when it comes to the spending of his tax dollars.
How do diplomatic relations with foreigners do anything to help this coal miner in West Virginia? Why should we be giving more handouts to foreigners when we have Americans, here at home, going without? Why should we be spending to develop other nations when our own infrastructure is crumbling?
We get it.
In a world that much of the media and certain political leaders have tried to portray as dangerous, treacherous, and out to get us, spending more on defense is a pretty easy sell to citizens skittish or apprehensive about the necessity of American engagement in far-flung locales. Who knows when America or its interests might be attacked by foreigners, and who knows if that extra submarine or extra F-35 fighter jet might be all that stands in between us and oblivion?
We get that too.
However, this is a false dichotomy -- the same false dichotomy as the “guns or butter” trope. It assumes that defense and aid and development (along with diplomacy) somehow occupy opposite polarities and are mutually exclusive. This view characterizes “hard” and “soft” power as being two opposing teams. In reality, both are not so much on opposing teams, but rather play different positions on the same team striving for the same goal: to protect and promote American interests at home and abroad by making the world a safer place for everyone.
In the humanitarian community, many of us like to think of our work as contributing to the greater good, that we are all engaged in it for the right reasons, and that it ultimately helps all of humanity. But when it comes to budget discussions, or convincing some Americans why foreign aid and humanitarian development matters, spending their hard-earned tax money on the greater good of humanity beyond American shores may not necessarily be a top priority. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to make the case as to why diplomacy, foreign aid, and international development does matter to all Americans.
Hopefully we can all agree that conflict and instability are bad for everyone, for so many reasons that it is impossible to fit them all in one article. Conflict and instability can drive people from their homes, creating the very displacement that challenges countries confronted with waves of refugees, while mitigating conflict naturally ameliorates many of the causes that lead to displacement and vast refugee flows that are now overwhelming and straining countries in multiple parts of the world. It can also lead to ungoverned or poorly governed spaces that can become a hotbed for terrorism to thrive and potentially threaten America or American interests. It also stunts economic development, by disincentivizing – or increasing the cost of – investment in other countries.
Why It Matters
Why does social or economic deprivation in other countries matter to us? For one reason: our national security. Through our work in northern Nigeria, for example, we have found that often people will join terrorist-linked groups not because they are themselves radicals or particularly attracted to fundamentalist creeds, but because the radicals are the ones providing a square meal and some semblance of public services. At the highest levels, terrorism is driven by ideology – but is often spread by social and economic desperation. One reason why aid workers are often targeted in conflict environments is because “the bad guys” recognize that aid and development projects compete with their message, outreach, and recruitment. Yes, we can combat terrorism with a military response – but aid and development helps to undermine terrorism at its beginnings. In many ways, soft and hard power combat terrorism in unison – the military can take out terrorists using force, while development hampers the recruitment and spread of terrorism in the first place.
State fragility, measured by our own Fragile States Index>, touches many parts of the globe. But today’s fragile states do not always need to remain so. Think of post-war Europe in the 1950s, or even South Korea in the 1970s – arguably states that were once fragile, that have now developed to be our trading partners and allies, in large part due to their own efforts, but with a boost from development programs – such as the Marshall Plan – that recognized that other countries’ development was in America’s economic and political interests, and we were prepared to invest a little then in order to reap significantly larger dividends now. The Marshall Plan, in 2016 dollars, cost American $120 billion; in 2016, American businesses exported well over double that amount to Europe in just one year. It is important to recognize that American companies do not only exist in America to import to the world – hundreds, if not thousands, of American businesses operate in foreign countries, and their operations there bring profits back here. For a company operating in an unstable environment, the cost of doing business is much higher, and the margins naturally lower. American companies recognize this, and many will by their own volition attempt to aid in development themselves to help mitigate these risks. For example, Chevron alone has invested millions of dollars into peacebuilding, development, and sustainable livelihoods in the Niger Delta, not only help share benefits more widely among the local community, but to foster a more stable operating environment that reduces their own risk and cost of doing business – in other words, a win-win.
Cost- … Benefit?
Let’s return to Mr. Mulvaney’s character from the opening statement, the coal miner in West Virginia. Even if he is convinced of why conflict is bad and stability is good – and even good for America – why should he, as a taxpayer, pay for it?
Well, first, we need some perspective – the Department of State and USAID, combined, account for just over 1 percent of the federal budget. And that’s not just aid and development – that’s everything, including America’s extensive network of Embassies and Consulates around the world, including everything from international nuclear negotiations to replacing a drunk spring breaker’s lost passport in Cancun. So, in comparison to the nearly $600 billion U.S. defense budget, we’re actually not talking about that great a sum.
Beyond the amount, let us also consider where that money is going. USAID administers a budget of about $22.7 billion a year, but that is not to say that $22.7 billion is handed to ungrateful foreigners in bundles of cash as some kind of charity giving. Much of that money is re-invested into America – it is American businesses with American employees that are running aid and development projects. When goods or services – including, sometimes, food aid – is procured, it is mostly from American businesses, not least because of Buy America regulations that compel U.S. government funds to be spent on American goods and services. We need to be clear that even though it sounds as if we are spending on foreigners, in actual fact, much of this money ends up being spent on Americans and American businesses.
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Though the effects may be somewhat indirect and not immediately obvious, foreign aid and international development absolutely benefit our skeptical fellow citizens. Aid and development are the cheapest and most sustainable forms of national defense that we have – not only does it contribute to de-escalating conflict, which in turns keeps us safer from the flow-on effects of conflict, but it does so for a bargain price. Further, aid and development benefits America economically – the field employs many thousands of Americans, procures millions of dollars of American goods and services, helps build emerging markets for American producers to sell to, and stabilizes environments for American firms to more securely invest in.
In many ways, the terms “foreign” aid and “international” development are a distraction. Even through spending a relative pittance on foreign aid and international development, ultimately foreigners are simply additional beneficiaries to a field that is really providing aid, development – and security – to ourselves, including both directly and indirectly to a coal miner in West Virginia.