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US Foreign Aid: Should The United States Increase Its Budget?

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Editor's Note: HuffPost College teamed with the International Debate Education Association to produce the following debate.

According to the World Bank, 22 percent of the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 per day in 2008. More than 1 billion people do not have access to food and 1 billion still lack access to clean, potable drinking water. The statistics on global poverty are endless and with one of the largest economies in the world, the United States is in a prime position to provide support to developing countries through foreign aid. America has a long history of using its economic advantages to help countries in need through multi-lateral and bi-lateral support. Successful, sustainable development and poverty reduction, however, is not easy, and often in the presidential debates, the intricacies of global interdependence—through multinational corporations, national defense, aid, or loans—get simplified.

In a 2010 poll, Americans were asked to estimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. While the median estimate was 25 percent, the median response for what they thought the “appropriate” percentage should be was only 10 percent. In reality, about 1 percent of the national budget is allotted to foreign aid. Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, said about the overestimate that it “may be due to Americans hearing more about [recent] aid efforts occurring in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti.” The actual investment in foreign aid is a small fraction of the discretionary budget. David Kilcullen explains in his book The Accidental Gorilla that in personnel terms, the Department of Defense is about 210 times larger than the US Agency of International Development (USAID) and the State Department combined, and it has 350 times as large a budget.

While foreign aid is often left out of the Presidential Debates, we aim to take a closer look at how President Obama and Mitt Romney propose to deal with foreign aid, and more specifically global poverty, in the upcoming presidential election. Does the United States have a responsibility to the rest of the world to help reduce global poverty, or should the country focus on domestic issues and policies?


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Despite a large national deficit, the Obama administration has stated over and over again that they have no plans to cut Official Development Assistance (ODA), and the 2011 budget reflects that by putting the United States on a path to double foreign assistance by 2015. The Obama administration has requested billion for international affairs in Fiscal Year 2013 that would go towards USAID funding and programs. The administration wants to embrace the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to cut global poverty by 2015 in hopes that foreign assistance can help countries build “healthy and educated communities, reduce poverty, develop markets, and generate wealth”. The Obama administration wants to increase foreign assistance to make investments to combat terrorism, corruption and transnational crime, improve global education and health, reduce poverty, build global food security, expand the Peace Corps, address climate change, stabilize post-conflict states, and reinforce conflict prevention. In a speech promoting good governance in Ghana, President Obama stated, “the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by—it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.” The goal remains to expand diplomatic and development capacity while renewing the United States as a global leader.


Through the work of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Obama administration hopes to “develop partnerships with countries committed to enabling the private sector investment that is the basis of sustained economic growth to open new markets for American goods, promote trade overseas, and create jobs here at home”. Essentially, through foreign aid, both the economies of the developing world and the United States come out ahead. Even Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has been quoted as saying that the 1 percent the United States spends on foreign aid “not only saves millions of lives, it has an enormous impact on developing countries – which means it has an impact on our economy”.
rnThe Obama campaign however, does argue for pragmatic budgetary approaches to foreign aid, creating transparency measures to ensure that “assistance [is] more transparent, accountable and effective”. In Obama’s 2012 campaign, promoting good governance through foreign aid makes sense for a range of foreign policy and development objectives. Through contributions in healthcare, education, poverty alleviation and infrastructure, investing in foreign aid and increasing the foreign aid budget will help create a more peaceful and safe global environment. Robert Gates, former US Secretary of Defense, has stated that “cutting aid jeopardizes US national security. It also creates a greater vacuum in so-called fragile states, which can easily be filled by those who do not have US interests at heart. There is no doubt that foreign assistance helps ward off future military conflicts.”

rnAs a fiscal conservative, Governor Mitt Romney believes that Americans and the United States economy will be better off cutting foreign aid expenses. In an October 2011 Republican primary debate, Romney passionately defended the GOP stance of questioning humanitarian assistance and foreign aid. He said, “I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid . . . . We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are taking that borrowed money.” Romney’s campaign often compares President Barack Obama’s policies to those of Europe. He criticizes the Obama administration’s foreign assistance efforts as largely squandered by a fragmented Washington bureaucracy.
rnGovernor Romney does not prioritize encouraging good governance and stability abroad through foreign aid, and there have been no mentions of any plans to reduce global poverty, improve healthcare and engage in sustainable development. While foreign aid is not specifically mentioned in any campaign materials, “Mitt’s Plan” regarding Africa, for instance, declares, “a Romney administration will encourage and assist African nations to adopt policies that create business-friendly environments and combat governmental corruption.” Despite wanting to cut economic aid and contributions to the United Nations, World Bank and IMF, his campaign further argues, “greater market access across the continent for U.S. businesses will bolster job creation in Africa as well as in the United States.” In spite of Romney’s calls for cutting foreign aid spending, his foreign policy is going to focus on international trade and job creation both domestically and abroad, which will benefit both the United States and international economies.
rnGovernor Romney was quoted as saying “foreign aid has several elements. One of those elements is defense, is to make sure that we are able to have the defense resources we want in certain places of the world. That probably ought to fall under the Department of Defense budget rather than a foreign aid budget.” The Romney campaign rejects the notion that the United States has an obligation to rely on foreign aid in its international development efforts, wanting to “[cut] the ongoing foreign aid commitments” and “[you] start everything from zero”.
rnVice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, has proposed a budget that includes cutting international affairs and foreign assistance by 29 percent in 2012 and 44 percent by 2016, which would dramatically cut funds for USAID and their foreign aid programs. The Republican party believes that cutting down all sorts of government spending, including international spending, would help bring the economy out of the deficit and back towards a balanced budget.



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