All Signs Point to Investing in U.S. Foreign Assistance

Let’s start with a quote from Hilary Clarke, Kara Fox and Richard Greene for CNN:

The US is by far the biggest donor to humanitarian crises in terms of financial contributions. The country donated roughly $6.4 billion -- or 29% of the $22.1 billion spent globally -- for emergencies alone in 2016, a spokesman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which oversees international emergency relief efforts, told CNN.

And then another by Andrew Natsios for The Atlantic:

… But using this rationale [that Europe have left their defense to the U.S.] to explain cuts in the U.S. aid budget makes no sense, because the Europeans, Japanese, and Canadians already contribute much more aid than the United States does. For example, in 2015, the United States ranked 20th out of about 30 donor governments when it came to foreign aid as a percentage of gross domestic product.

While both statements appear to contradict each other - how could the U.S. be the largest donor but ranked 20th? - the paradox is ultimately solved after viewing the OECD’s 2015 figures for Official Development Assistance (ODA):

From what we see, the United States’ ODA as a percentage of Gross National Income (GNI) is only .17%, behind Japan (.22%) and Canada (.28%). Small, right? But then on the right we find that the United States nearly doubles the combined amount spent by the U.K. and Germany.

We find that CNN and Natsios aren’t wrong. And in fact, they are working hand in hand on the argument for expanding foreign assistance programs. However, their rhetoric tends to vary: CNN seeks a pathos argument: there are more refugees in the world than ever and foreign assistance saves lives. Natsios finds the logos argument, which is can be well summarized by the double-speak of Prashanth Parameswaran of The Diplomat w/r/t Trump and Southeast Asia:

… it can preserve the U.S. role as a capable and willing Pacific power seeking to advance greater security, prosperity, and democracy in the Asia-Pacific while working with Southeast Asian states on common challenges in a way that advances U.S. interests but still preserves their autonomy and freedom of action.

In other words, the logos argument for foreign assistance is for the United States to gain and maintain soft power within beneficiary regions. For more better than worse, federal development organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are key for directly interfacing with the local citizens of a country, allowing the United States to build a goodwill from the bottom up in countries with historical tensions with liberal economics or Westernization.

Let Girls Learn was a crucial symbolic pillar of Obama’s foreign policy. With USAID as the smiling face of the United States, education programs contributed to teaching the youngest generations of Laos, Vietnam, etc. about the goodwill of the American people. These children will in time enter the high echelons of their governments and push their nation toward United States-friendly policies on trade and alliance-ship. Or so it should go.

While CNN’s humanitarian argument is enough to convert America’s bleeding hearts, the pragmatic argument for expanding the United States’ soft power in the Middle East and Asia are critical to attaining President Trump’s supposed ideal of “America First” foreign and domestic policies. These are the two key geopolitical regions that China, the other contender for economic and cultural dominance, is seeking to influence as it grows in need of natural and political capital. We can watch as China pushes cultural products into Saudi Arabia, and investing in Cambodia’s technological infrastructure, at the same time Cambodia is requesting forgiveness of loans from the United States. Holding cultural and economic power over another country is powerful, as China has expressed since Xi Jinping entered office.

In an era of globalized trade, “quid pro quo” has become necessary for building relationships as developing countries band together in hopes of political leverage during trade negotiations: being locked out of one country’s trade deals may mean being locked out of a whole cartel or trade alliance. Foreign assistance is required to have a direct, local interface between the United States and developing countries that have the potential to directly help or hinder the growth of America’s domestic economy.

Assistance/aid is also a very effective way of enacting cultural reproduction; many beneficiaries are willing to accept the strings of assistance, whether they are preplanned (Western) education programs for the success of their young or developing (Western) democratic policies for continued economic investments. Foreign assistance is investing twenty to thirty years in the future, in potentially disruptive nations and in their children, who will fundamentally build - destroy - the success of their benefactors.

Natsios’ use of percentage of GNI is important for the logos argument. It isn’t so much that cutting U.S. foreign assistance by thirty percent is the central issue - which was CNN has proposed - it’s that the United States’ investment in foreign assistance has been historically a pittance, only a quarter the amount it should actually be spending in order to maintain significance in global trade and political affairs. Not only are the cuts too much - it hasn’t been enough for decades. And this lack of investment is visible time and time again during revolutions, military conflicts, natural disasters, and the United States’ continually waning relevance in the eyes of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.