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U.S. Aid Threatened by Budget Cuts?

U.S. Aid Threatened by Budget Cuts?

As the U.S. debt crisis moves from the summer to the fall with the convening of the Congressional “super-committee,” it’s clear that everything will be on the chopping block, including one of the most important expressions of the U.S. role in the world: foreign aid. U.S. foreign aid is an interesting topic due to common misconceptions about it. For some reason, the idea developed in the popular imagination that the U.S. spends an enormous amount of money on foreign assistance programs, programs that are seen as frivolous and wasteful. I used to teach an introductory course on international relations and when we covered this topic I would ask my students how much of the federal budget they thought went to foreign aid. They would invariably say it was between 10% and 25%. Of course, I’m not suggesting that a simple poll of students is in any way a good measure of public opinion, but their responses do mirror responses to opinion polls that have a much more scientific methodology, polls that show people really do think we spend a lot on foreign aid. It’s paradoxical, the American people generally support foreign aid, they want the U.S. to be a generous country, but they just don’t want to spend too much on it.

So, on the one hand, we have public opinion and on the other hand, we have the true fiscal reality: the U.S. spends about 1% of our federal budget on foreign aid. This is a small figure, far smaller than other “wasteful” government programs you can probably think of, and yet some would suggest that we could achieve great savings if we eliminated it altogether. In this op-ed in The Washington Post Daniel Serwer suggests that although we could save some money by eliminating foreign aid, it would come at the cost of our influence in the world.

U.S. foreign aid supports economic growth, agriculture and trade, global health, democracy training programs, conflict prevention programs, food aid and other humanitarian assistance. When major earthquakes strike, or famine breaks out (as it has recently in Somalia and the Horn of Africa), or wars threaten the lives of thousands of refugees, U.S. aid workers are on the front lines. This assistance helps real people as well as earning goodwill for the U.S., goodwill that can be leveraged as soft power. And, as Serwer points out, U.S. aid can be a preventative and proactive tool to address problems before they become so large that they require an expensive military solution. These savings should be considered in any budget calculus meant to save money.

Image Credit: USAID



Joel Davis

Joel Davis is the Director of Online Services at the International Studies Association in Tucson, Arizona. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona, where he received his B.A. in Political Science and Master's degree in International Relations. He has lived in the UK, Italy and Eritrea, and his travels have taken him to Canada, Brazil, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Greece.

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Areas of Focus:
State Department; Diplomacy; US Aid; and Alliances.

Contact Joel by e-mail at [email protected].