In the midst of terrorist attacks and domestic economic debates, foreign aid and its implementation has not been a prioritized talking point in America’s election this upcoming November. However politicians on both sides of the aisle have stated the importance of foreign aid throughout recent history. In April, even rock star Bono appealed to the senate, encouraging senators to increase foreign aid expenditure. So is foreign aid really that important? If so, why has it been minimally discussed in debates for the presidential bid this year?
In the broadest sense of the phrase, foreign aid is defined as “assistance (as economic aid) provided by one nation to another.” Throughout history it has allowed the United States to have a stake in the political decisions of other countries, curb global epidemics, and create wealth in other countries, among other results. It is no secret that the amount of aid the U.S. gives to each country often directly correlates with our interests abroad. We have also engaged in humanitarian foreign aid to build relationships with other governments. In their article, Benjamin Goldsmith, Uysaku Horiuchi, and Terence Wood argue that foreign public opinion is favorable toward the United States when we “do good” in other countries, which benefits Americans abroad and our foreign policy in the long run. Bill Clintonemphasized this idea when he spoke to Stephen Colbert about the Clinton Global Initiative and stated that in his work, there is no difference between selfish and selfless, because “selfless” work innately benefits us as global citizens. However while foreign aid can be a great tool that demonstrates the American values of creating a more prosperous, free world, it is also a large point of contention.
Foreign aid is not always used effectively. In 1987, Ronald Reagan made a speech opposing the mismanagement of foreign aid funds, stating “with this money we bought a yacht for Haile Selassie.” There are many examples of mismanagement of development funds, especially before the 1990s. In his book The Politics of United States Foreign Aid, George Guess names more examples of wasteful spending, such as when “Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos illegally diverted nearly $2 million in interest […] for his unsuccessful re-election bid in February, 1986.” Foreign aid spending dropped in the 1990s, but increased again in the 21stcentury with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Since this time, more safeguards have been instituted to ensure the responsible spending of foreign aid funds. To increase transparency in foreign aid spending, a new official government website reports all foreign aid data expenditures and breaks down funding by country and type of aid assistance. Development projects have also been increasingly contracted out to third party organizations that have greater oversight capacity to manage projects funded by foreign aid. So while improvements should still be made, foreign aid spending has had progressively more oversight since it was expanded after World War II.
Regardless of these changes in implementation, foreign aid is a highly unpopular concept. In 2014 the U.S. gave a total of $32 billion in foreign aid to other countries. While this sounds like a large amount, it was only 0.19% of the U.S. national income. The U.S. gives the most foreign aid in dollar value, however we fall short of other countries’ generosity in terms of aid as a percent of national income. Sweden gives the highest percentage of foreign aid: 1.1% of their national income. Israel scored the lowest, spending just 0.07% of their national income on foreign aid. In reality the U.S. is average in its foreign aid expenditure, relative to national income. However Americans do not perceive aid this way. The Kaiser Family Foundation polled 1,505 random Americans and found that, on average, most Americans believed 26% of our federal budget goes to foreign aid—more than all of military spending, education, transportation, and veteran’s benefits put together.
Considering these misconceptions about foreign aid, it is easier to understand why an important topic like foreign aid, so capable of shaping international opinion of the US, has not been a greater priority in Election 2016. Both candidates address their foreign aid positions on their websites. Hillary Clinton refers to foreign aid as a component of her formula for “smart power” in her statement “we have to use every pillar of American power – military might but also diplomacy, development aid, economic and cultural influence, technology, and the force of our values, that is smart power.” Donald Trump directly mentioned aid in his bid announcement when he stated: “It is necessary that we invest in our infrastructure, stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us and use that money to rebuild our tunnels, roads, bridges, and schools.” By “countries that hate us,” Trump is likely referring to Pakistan and Egypt, two of the largest recipients of foreign aid. Most—almost half—of the aid we give to each of these two countries is categorized for “peace and security.” That is what can be so confusing about foreign aid. There is no specification within the term for what is given in military aid, and what is given in humanitarian and infrastructure assistance.
President Obama has proposed that foreign aid should be combined with the defense budget, since the multifaceted wellbeing of other nations and their citizens is vital to America’s national security. Obama’s assertion, combined with the statements by both candidates, suggests that the American people support foreign aid when politicians frame it as a power-inducing factor to America’s national security. To revisit my initial question regarding foreign aid’s nonexistence in presidential debates this past election, what I least expected in starting this research has seemed to be true—fundamentally, foreign aid is a nonissue in this election, with both candidates viewing it as a similar tool, from different sides of the aisle.
It could also be the case that recent events in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, and Orlando, and the nativist sentiments that followed, do not allow for discussion of spending more money on aid that would not directly result in greater safety for Americans. However Bush’s support of PEPFAR to reduce the AIDS epidemic, Obama’s “Power Africa” program, America’s support of other countries after national disasters, and funding to make elections in budding democracies more transparent are efforts that do not go unnoticed globally. By framing foreign aid as solely an endeavor for power, we may miss out on opportunities to make deeper partnerships, greater developmental advancements, and participate in the successes of lesser-developed nations. While it is strategic to use foreign aid to make America more powerful, it is just as beneficial in the long run to use our power to promote—and fund—aid projects that reflect American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness beyond our own borders. To our presidential candidates, it may be time to debate aid, and all categories of it, more in-depth. After all, foreign aid matters, and not just to voting Americans.
All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.