When asked on Face the Nation for specific priorities that might be cut as a result of the economic crisis, Barack Obama offered the possibility that his pledge to double foreign assistance by 2012 might have to be "delayed".
Then Joe Biden during the vice-presidential debate echoed Obama's suggestion to "slow down" foreign assistance.
Meanwhile, though John McCain has talked about his strong support for foreign aid, he has never made a clear commitment on funding levels. In the first debate he suggested that a full freeze on spending was a possibility, which would make it impossible for him to reach his stated goal of stopping malaria by 2015.
Why are both parties, who have repeatedly spoken in favor of increasing foreign assistance, now so quick to propose slowing down or canceling aid that can help fight urgent disease threats and restore America's battered image abroad?
There is no denying that Americans are feeling real pain as a result of the economic downturn. Spending by the next President on health, education and infrastructure, as well as economic stimulation, is an urgent priority. But backing away from foreign assistance is not good policy, it is not necessary, and, even during this financial crisis, it is not good politics either.
Foreign assistance plays a key role in restoring America's image abroad, and many experts, including military leaders, have made clear its crucial role in preventing the emergence of failed states.
After years of failed US policies abroad, now is exactly the wrong time to engage in isolationism. Warning against a tendency toward isolationism in the face of the current downturn, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also appealed to rich countries not to use the crisis as a reason to not help the poor. "This would be the worst time to turn back," he stated.
Americans should be proud that US assistance programs are saving lives. Take for example, the US global AIDS program (PEPFAR). In July 2008, the United States government reauthorized PEPFAR, the single biggest global public health program in history. In its first five years, PEPFAR supported life-saving treatment for approximately 1.73 million men, women and children, and it has increased countries' ability to better manage health threats using their own resources.
In addition to the many moral and humanitarian arguments for increased foreign assistance, it also is important to protect our own health security. For example, consider tuberculosis and its new variant, extensively drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB). The Department of Homeland Security has called XDR-TB, with death rates approaching 100 percent in some settings, an "emerging threat to the homeland." In the early 1990s, New York City had one of the worst outbreaks of multi-drug resistant TB the country has ever seen, and the city had to spend nearly $1 billion on containment. A delay in providing the relatively tiny amount of increased spending needed to fight all forms of this deadly disease will only further our vulnerability to this serious global health problem.
For the same reason, it would be foolhardy for the US to fail to provide the relatively small amount poorer countries need to address pandemic influenza, which could kill over half a million Americans, hospitalize more than two million, cost our economy a staggering $70-$160 billion in lost productivity and direct medical expenses.
Looked at this way, it is easy to see that foreign assistance is just as important to America's interests as any of the big ticket items in the defense budget. Additionally, foreign assistance amounts to less than one percent of the US budget, so delaying or canceling even a doubling of that will not free up significant money for human needs in the US. Even in the midst of significant and real domestic economic and social conditions at home, the US is positioned to provide that leadership and drastically reduce needless suffering and death from preventable and treatable diseases and save literally millions of lives.
Fortunately, both candidates made it clear at the recent Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting that foreign assistance is critical to our security prosperity and reputation in the world and both have also promised reforms in foreign aid to make it more effective:
Senator Obama has said, "The security and well-being of each and every American is tied to the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders" and foreign assistance is "our best investment in increasing the common security of the entire world."
McCain agreed, stating "True security requires a far broader approach, using non-military means to reduce threats before they gather strength. And this is especially true of our strategic interest in fighting disease and extreme poverty across the globe."
If they truly believe this, they should keep to their promises to increase aid while also making sure the money is well-spent.
As the nations of the world gather to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our leaders must take bold steps towards restoring the United States as a global leader in supporting human rights and international law, while demonstrating the political courage to hold ourselves accountable for promoting human dignity in all walks of life.
In these difficult economic times, it is more important than ever for our leaders to hear from us that keeping our commitments to the world's most vulnerable people is still a priority. A new petition by the ONE campaign calls on Barack Obama and John McCain to do just that.