President Donald Trump’s plan to slash U.S. foreign aid in favor of increased military spending is likely to have the opposite effect he intends—it may ultimately make the world less safe and destabilize global economies.
The proposal, which would cut the U.S. State Department’s budget by 28 percent, demonstrates a worrying disregard of how diplomacy and development can be used to wield soft power. It’s an idea that even Trump’s own Defense Secretary, General James Mattis, clearly understands. Mattis, the former head of U.S. Central Command, once famously said that “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” The budget still needs approval from Congress, and so it’s absolutely critical that our legislators reject these cuts and ensure robust foreign assistance levels that will advance American interests abroad.
History books show how useful foreign aid has been for promoting peace and prosperity. From the Marshall Plan that worked to rebuild Europe after World War II to PEPFAR that helped stem the AIDS pandemic in the early 2000s, foreign aid has long been an integral part of America’s foreign policy and a unique tool used to help countries develop, stabilize, and create new markets for U.S. businesses. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the primary aid agency that works under the State Department, has a $17 billion budget that provides crucial economic and development assistance to more than 125 countries. Together with a handful of other agencies, total funding for foreign aid accounts for less than 1 percent of overall U.S. spending.
Cutting USAID’s budget disproportionately further would pose risks for U.S. interests at a time when instability and isolationism are already increasing worldwide. Conflicts have erupted from Syria to South Sudan, spurring tides of refugees, while extreme droughts are threatening food supplies and sending local grain prices to records in South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda. Somalia, the nerve center of the terrorist group al-Shabaab, is on the brink of a famine that could adversely affect important American allies like Kenya and Ethiopia. In a tightly integrated world, potential food riots could destabilize vulnerable communities and contribute to radicalization or civil unrest, similar to what we saw during the global food crisis in 2007 and 2008.
Trump’s plan to slash aid spending in favor of the military is not only dangerous, it’s also potentially wasteful. There are many simple, inexpensive actions that can promote global stability—if we train farmers to grow more food sustainably, they’re less likely to require costly emergency food aid. Ethiopia experienced the brutal effects of famine in the 1980s, due in part to decades of underinvestment in foreign assistance. The world responded, but at great expense. It is far more costly, from a humanitarian and fiscal perspective, to be reactive to foreign crises rather than preventative.
Promoting poverty reduction, and ultimately wealth creation, can also be good for American businesses. In East Africa, for example, economies are growing, and the U.S. already has a trade surplus with the region. Many people in these countries are still living in extreme poverty, so foreign assistance should be designed to benefit those at the very bottom of the wealth pyramid—70 percent of whom are smallholder farmers. Even relatively small amounts of foreign aid can generate robust income gains for the world’s poorest people, if money is deployed strategically.
My organization, One Acre Fund, works with more than 400,000 smallholder farmers in East and Southern Africa, and we’ve seen firsthand how foreign assistance can make a difference in these communities. One of the most efficient ways to help farmers overcome poverty is to simply give them the tools to be more productive, or to essentially get better at their jobs. We’ve been able to leverage a relatively small amount of foreign aid dollars to provide farmers with financing for better seeds and fertilizer, and to offer training in modern agricultural techniques that can help them double their crop yields and increase their incomes by 50 percent.
Poor populations, when cut off from markets and opportunities, often face desperate choices. Foreign assistance, while not perfect, is a powerful tool to root out the causes of hunger and poverty and to ultimately stabilize communities and serve American interests. At the end of the day, Congress controls the purse, not the president. It’s crucial that our lawmakers have enough courage and resolve to protect the foreign aid budget, because in the end, the stakes are high.