The international community suffered a profound loss earlier this month when Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Libya. While the deplorable attack came at the hands of an extremist group, the collective response of the Muslim world has clearly not been supportive of the actions of a few. Within hours, Libya's interim president strongly condemned the "cowardly" attack and apologized to the United States. Yet almost immediately, some leaders in the United States seized upon the attack as a reason for the United States to end all foreign aid to Libya and other nations in the region.
Ambassador Stevens undoubtedly would have advocated a very different response. In his speech for the consular re-opening ceremony in Libya less than four weeks ago, Ambassador Stevens said, "Relationships between governments are important, but relationships between people are the real foundation of mutual understanding."
As Ambassador Stevens well understood, American foreign aid, in the form of economic assistance to provide humanitarian relief, is perhaps our greatest asset to forge steadfast relationships with billions of people in nations in every corner of the globe. In a post 9/11 world, hair-trigger reactions to cut off foreign assistance or replace it with armaments are not the solution.
We are at a crossroads as a global community. We can either embrace our connection as human beings or we can pull back into isolationism.
A far more powerful approach is to share American values through innumerable programs to improve health, education, equality and other aspects of life in parts of the world where those values are understood the least.
When a mother in malaria prone sub-Saharan Africa puts her child to sleep under a mosquito net that Americans supported, America is building a relationship with that family. When children in the Middle East attend a school that America funded, America is building a relationship with that community. When millions of citizens in Asia are devastated by a natural disaster and America intervenes to help rebuild, America is building a relationship with that nation.
Perhaps the best-documented recent example of the power of foreign assistance to influence public opinion was the response of the Indonesian people, the world's most populous Muslim country, after the U.S. provided hundreds of millions of dollars toward relief from the tsunami of 2004. In a series of nationwide surveys by TFT, two thirds of all Indonesians changed their opinion of the United States favorably because of the American response to the tsunami, with the highest percentage among those under age 30.
But it doesn't require a tsunami for development assistance to yield such benefits. Day after day, American foreign aid is dramatically improving millions of lives and consequently, impressions of America. After the U.S. Navy's hospital ship Mercy visited Bangladesh in 2006, a nationwide poll found that 87 percent of Bangladeshis said that the American humanitarian assistance favorably changed their opinion of the United States.
Foreign aid can be one of our most effective, long-term counter terrorism tools. As former National Security Advisor General Jim Jones has said,
The work being done in the global health world by the US and other nations is crucial for promoting global stability and eliminating the circumstances that foster hate and radicalism. In the 21st century it's not enough to have a strong and capable military to counter the threat of terrorism and instability.
Most Americans, when they realize that our investment in foreign assistance, at less than 1% of our GDP, can provide such transformative benefits, stand firmly behind this support, even in these more difficult economic times domestically. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, two thirds of Americans are supportive of maintaining the current level of US foreign support or would be supportive of even higher levels.
Yet notwithstanding the compelling evidence, development assistance is under threat, and it could not come at a more critical time. As the United Nations General Assembly convenes this week, the international community will be assessing progress toward the UN's health related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These bold goals, signed on to by 189 UN member states in 2000, aim to reduce child mortality by two thirds, maternal mortality by three quarters, and reverse the course of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, all by December 31, 2015.
Already, tremendous progress has been achieved, with child mortality down by over one third and maternal mortality down by half of what they were in 1990. Children's deaths from malaria have fallen by almost 50 percent since 2000. At the same time, this humanitarian effort is resulting in increased economic output, in Africa especially. A recent study by the consultancy, McKinsey and Company found that for every $1 invested in malaria, African economies can expect to see a $40 return in the form of increased productivity. These benefits not only help Africans, but also increase American trade and investment.
While American assistance has certainly played a catalytic role in these advances, even more impressive is the collaborative global model that has developed. The United Kingdom, France and many other nations as well as multilateral organizations including the World Bank and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, have played leading roles in achieving this progress. At the same time, commodity costs of health interventions are declining, leading to more effective aid -- items such as mosquito nets cost half of what they did ten years ago thanks to smarter assistance.
In addition, we are seeing emerging economies step up in new ways. India and China are creating their own development funds. Countries like Brazil, are turning down foreign assistance, and Nigeria is fine tuning their own development plans and investing internal resources, such as revenues from their oil revenues, in a substantial way.
In the midst of such innovative progress, the MDG Health Alliance, in partnership with key UN organizations, is leading the charge for a final "Big Push" to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by the end of 2015.
Funding is at the foundation of our effort, and it is only be securing sufficient resources that we can hope to strengthen our international relationships and improve lives on such a massive scale.
The bond that links us through humanitarian aid cannot be broken by the scenes of turmoil which occur at the hands of a few, when the mutual respect for that bond is so overwhelmingly strong. In the aftermath of the attack in Libya, what should be one of the most enduring images is of the streets crowded with peaceful citizens, holding signs of apology for the attacks and support for the United States. We cannot afford to let them down, or the billions of people like them across the world.
Thomas H. Kean a former governor of New Jersey, served as chairman of the Sept. 11 commission. Raymond G. Chambers is Chair of the MDG Health Alliance, and the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Malaria.