THE BLOG
10/28/2011 12:30 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011

Gender Equality and Social Justice: Why Foreign Assistance Matters

Three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this month demonstrate the lessons our Congress needs to recall as we debate issues of foreign policy and national security.

These three leaders -- President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Yemeni democracy advocate Tawakul Karman -- have changed our world. We in the United States should be thrilled by the Nobel Committee's choice, because their success demonstrates core values animating our foreign policy: that local, grassroots participation -- including women -- is a foundation of social progress, and that the demand for human rights can overcome even the most entrenched corruption. And our foreign assistance programs have been a support to all three laureates in their efforts to bring peace, democracy and justice to their countries.

Judging by the ongoing appropriations process, Congress may be losing sight of those values. Drastic cuts to our poverty-focused development assistance will make it much harder for us to extend a hand to the millions across the globe who would form the movements to change their world like Johnson Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman are doing.

The moral imperative of supporting struggling communities around the world is self evident. The people of the United States have always understood this obligation, and their generosity is unequalled by the people of any other country. A recent poll showed that most Americans think that foreign assistance is one-fourth of our budget. They would like to see our assistance be at around 10-13 percent of the budget. In fact, our entire foreign affairs account is around one percent of the budget. Perhaps more significant, Americans donate hundreds of millions of their hard-earned dollars to private voluntary agencies working in some of the poorest communities in the world.

The fact is, foreign aid works.

First, it saves lives. Today, the number of Ethiopians at risk of starvation is estimated at five million, down from 13 million directly at risk during the 2002 drought. Why? Because U.S. government and non-governmental investments in water-shed management projects have helped to build community resilience to predictable droughts. With basic technology and education, communities can manage water resources to avoid the famine hitting Somalia, where such assistance and governmental support lacks.

Second, in fostering stronger, more resilient communities, our foreign assistance also bolsters our security. Research shows that for every five percent drop in income growth in a developing country, the likelihood of violent conflict or war within the next year increases by 10 percent. Poverty-focused development assistance supports economic growth, protects vulnerable people, and helps curtail desperation that may lead to violence. That is why former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has always been such a forceful advocate for development aid, once saying "development is far cheaper than sending in soldiers." According to some estimates, every dollar we spend on development and diplomacy saves from $15 to $100 in defense spending. As a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, that gets my attention.

Third, deep cuts to our foreign aid programs pose a threat to our economy. The business community recognizes that fact, and 50 leading U.S. businesses from Caterpillar to Walmart -- as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- have come to Congress asking us to support a strong and effective foreign affairs budget. They know that U.S. government programs that taught millions of African children to read will have enormous economic impact. The economy we're building requires literate customers, and our best exports -- like iPhones -- come with a whole value system that underscores the freedom America has always represented.

But the best reason to support a responsible investment in foreign assistance is moral. Our aid spreads human freedom. All three women who won the Nobel have worked with U.S. partner institutions from Harvard University to the American Jewish World Service. Tawakul Karman participated in the State Department's International Visitors Leadership Program (which has been cut substantially by Congress in two consecutive years). The value network of which these institutions are a part lift up every person struggling to achieve a more just world.

One such core value demonstrates that the selection of three women for the Prize is more than a symbol. In recent years, the international development community has come to a better understanding of the critical relationship between gender, justice and development. Research shows that when conditions improve for women, economies grow faster, children's health improves and institutions become less corrupt and more representative.

According to the UN Development Program, 6 of 10 of the poorest people on earth are female, and women and girls make up two thirds of the illiterate people in the world. We've got a long way to go.

I hate to see our Congress turning away from the rest of the world. That's not who we are as a people, and as a nation. Our values give hope to women and men struggling against poverty, discrimination and oppression everywhere, and we have an obligation to be a part of the solution.