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Rachel Cook

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Flea-Markets and Foreign Aid: Things Aren't Always What They Seem

Posted: 01/17/12 02:05 PM ET

Turning sharply off of Ohio 7 South just below Marietta into a parking lot full of white vans and milling shoppers, I was uncommonly thrilled at the sight of Rinky-Dinks Flea Market, a treasure so local that the West Virginia Welcome Center, located just on the other side of the Ohio River, does not even publish information about it. An hour before, I had downed a liter of pallid coffee at my parents' house, making Rinky-Dinks the only thing between me and a wet seat.

But something looked different, I thought, as I parked next to one of the vans. Located a little more than an hour south of my hometown of Barnesville, Ohio, Rinky-Dinks antiques is a hallmark example of highfalutin junk dealing, as my uncle might say. Walking toward the entrance, l looked up, and noticed this:

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"STOP All Foreign Aid"

It was a shame I had drunk so much coffee.

Mouth agape, I looked around, and then back up at the banner, and then at a sign above the entrance which said the same thing. I was embarrassed. Of all the critical issues facing this region, from environmental pollution to heart disease, why focus on something that accounted for less than 2/10ths of one percent of our gross domestic product, and that is designed to benefit U.S. companies? I considered striking up a conversation about this with my van-neighbor, but thought better of it: again, the coffee; Mother Nature was calling.

After my rest stop, I grabbed my camera, and snapped two pictures of the sign, wondering where and how we lost the connection between international assistance and our own welfare.

It turns out that chatting was exactly what I should have done. Nearly two months after I stopped at Rinky-Dinks, the Guardian reported in an article entitled, "The self-inflicted wound of foreign-aid cuts," that the Obama administration had proposed a 10 percent increase in foreign aid for the 2012 budget cycle(still less than 2 percent of the total federal budget). At the same time, however, the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a 20 percent reduction, while the Senate suggested a 10 percent cut from last year's total, or no increase.

Clearly, the anti-aid sentiment extends beyond this corner of Appalachia, but what exactly, does "Stop All Foreign Aid" mean for this region? Bearing in mind that lower-income, rural areas like those surrounding Rinky-Dinks experience a disproportionate number of military casualties, and that neighboring communities in West Virginia send more residents to the U.S. military per capita than any state, I wonder if those who want to "Stop All Foreign Aid" include military assistance in their calculation? If not, why not?

In 2010, the United States spent 20 percent of its budget on Defense and Security, as opposed to less than 1 percent on non-security related international assistance. Moreover, of that 1 percent, the largest majority goes to four countries: Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel under the broad category of "peace and security." This 1 percent is less than half of the foreign aid budget of the 1980s, and even less of earlier decades.

What's the deal?

Like any good bargain-hunter would know, perception does not equal reality. A 2010 survey found that when a representative sample of Americans were asked to estimate what percent of the U.S. federal budget goes to foreign aid, the median answer was 25 percent; and, when asked to suggest the appropriate percentage, the median answer was 10 percent. Only 10 percent of the respondents agreed that federal foreign aid should be eliminated.

So maybe the sign at Rinky-Dinks is just an anomaly. Even still, this does not account for private international aid, or the grossly inflated amount of international aid that Americans think their government provides, or think it should provide.

Aid agencies, especially federal ones such as United States Agency for International Development, need to wake up to this disconnect if they expect to retain funds for international humanitarian and development projects. As citizens, we need to know that the tiny percentage of foreign aid outside "security" -- water filters, health services and education -- does as much, if not more, than the same amount of defense spending to promote peace and security in volatile regions. Funding schools for young women and men in the world's most volatile regions is cheaper and more effective than funding an army to counteract the end-result of resource deprivation.

While there are legitimate questions about how and where to spend aid, the answer, supported by 90 percent of Americans, is not to stop it. Particularly during a recession and two wars, states like Ohio and West Virginia, where more American flags fly from porches and more families lose loved ones from combat compared with many other states, the decision to support foreign aid should be clear: that sign should read MORE FOREIGN AID.