‘Amer­ica first’ shouldn’t mean cut­ting foreign aid

Michael Ger­son and Raj Shah say the small in­vest­ment helps keep the United States safe

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @MJGer­son, @ra­jshah Michael Ger­son and Raj Shah are se­nior fel­lows with Results for Amer­ica and the au­thors of the “Money­ball for Gov­ern­ment” chap­ter “Foreign As­sis­tance and the Rev­o­lu­tion of Rigor.” Ger­son, an opin­ion colum­nist for The Wash­ingto

We have en­tered the era of “Amer­ica first” with only a vague un­der­stand­ing of its mean­ing. Pres­i­dent Trump’s in­au­gu­ral ad­dress sig­naled an am­bi­tious na­tion­al­ist reimag­in­ing of the post-World War II in­ter­na­tional or­der. Trump’s foreign pol­icy team, in con­trast, seems to spring from that or­der. The re­sult­ing un­cer­tainty is global and danger­ous. Vac­u­ums of lead­er­ship are not gen­er­ally filled by the good guys.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy shift is most ev­i­dent so far in the ar­eas of trade and refugees — Trump prefers less of both. Given a nar­rowed con­cep­tion of na­tional in­ter­est and the pres­i­dent’s dis­com­fort with the idea of “na­tion build­ing,” foreign as­sis­tance would seem a nat­u­ral next tar­get. Per­sis­tent ru­mors that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is mulling ma­jor cuts at the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment (USAID) have height­ened this spec­u­la­tion.

Although Trump hasn’t spo­ken much on this topic, some of his com­ments have re­flected an in­cli­na­tion to pull back. “It is nec­es­sary that we in­vest in our in­fra­struc­ture, stop send­ing foreign aid to coun­tries that hate us and use that money to re­build our tun­nels, roads, bridges and schools,” he said when he an­nounced his can­di­dacy. And in a March 2016 in­ter­view with the Wash­ing­ton Post edi­to­rial board, he said: “I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they’d be blown up. And we’d build an­other one, and it would get blown up . . . . And yet we can’t build a school in Brook­lyn. We have no money for ed­u­ca­tion, be­cause we can’t build in our own coun­try. And at what point do you say, hey, we have to take care of our­selves.”

Yet Trump has also added notes of am­bi­gu­ity. In Au­gust, he told the Miami Her­ald that Congress should in­crease fund­ing to fight the Zika virus abroad. In Septem­ber, he un­der­lined the im­por­tance of en­sur­ing clean wa­ter for ev­ery­one in the world. In Oc­to­ber, he stated that “we’re go­ing to lead the way” on AIDS re­lief.

In this case, Trump’s bet­ter angels would do more to serve the coun­try than his bud­get-cut­ters. Putting foreign as­sis­tance on the chopping block would be a se­ri­ous mis­take, by any def­i­ni­tion of the na­tional in­ter­est.

Let’s be­gin by get­ting the facts straight. Sur­veys have shown that many Amer­i­cans as­sume the coun­try spends up­wards of 20 per­cent of the fed­eral bud­get on foreign aid. In re­al­ity, non­mil­i­tary foreign as­sis­tance — in­clud­ing all of Amer­ica’s work on in­ter­na­tional devel­op­ment and global health — rep­re­sents less than 1 per­cent of the fed­eral bud­get. Slash­ing this tiny cat­e­gory of dis­cre­tionary spend­ing for the sake of bud­get con­trol would be a form of de­cep­tion — a sideshow to avoid truly im­por­tant (and un­pop­u­lar) bud­getary choices.

For less than 1 per­cent of the fed­eral bud­get, the United States led a global coali­tion to fight HIV/AIDS when the dis­ease threat­ened to dev­as­tate and desta­bi­lize much of the African con­ti­nent. Bat­tling an­other of the world’s most lethal killers, malaria, U.S.-led global pro­grams have saved more than 6 mil­lion lives, m ainly chil­dren un­der 5 years old. Amer­ica also led a global ef­fort to sup­port agri­cul­ture when the food, fuel and fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008 pushed nearly 100 mil­lion peo­ple back into a state of chronic hunger and extreme poverty. As of 2015, that ef­fort had di­rectly ben­e­fited nearly 19 mil­lion ru­ral house­holds and reached more than 12 mil­lion chil­dren with nu­tri­tion pro­grams. And Amer­ica led a global part­ner­ship to bring power to half a bil­lion peo­ple in Africa who have too of­ten lived, worked, stud­ied and given birth in the dark.

This es­tab­lished im­pact runs up against a durable stereo­type: that foreign as­sis­tance is rou­tinely bun­dled in large bills and thrown down rat holes of waste and cor­rup­tion. The charge is not en­tirely without his­tor­i­cal root. Dur­ing the Cold War, foreign as­sis­tance had some re­mark­able suc­cesses, in­clud­ing the Mar­shall Plan and the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, but also no­table fail­ures such as aid to Viet­nam and to dic­ta­tors in Cen­tral Amer­ica. In Africa, as­sis­tance some­times went to strong­men such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, mainly be­cause of a strate­gic chess game against the Soviet Union, not be­cause he was spurring devel­op­ment.

But over the past two decades and past two pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tions, health and devel­op­ment spend­ing has evolved into a rig­or­ous, in­no­va­tive and pro­fes­sional en­ter­prise ded­i­cated to mea­sured out­comes. Aid and devel­op­ment prac­ti­tion­ers know how to set smart tar­gets, en­gage pri­vate-sec­tor part­ners, adapt to chang­ing cir­cum­stances and make sure tax­pay­ers get the most value for their in­vest­ments. And they have ev­i­dence that what they are do­ing works.

Most U.S. foreign as­sis­tance no longer even goes to foreign gov­ern­ments: It is given to U.S. com­pa­nies and non­prof­its in the form of con­tracts and grants; these or­ga­ni­za­tions then im­ple­ment projects in other coun­tries, em­ploy­ing a com­bi­na­tion of Amer­i­can and foreign staff mem­bers and of­ten part­ner­ing with in­sti­tu­tions of civil so­ci­ety.

But why does this em­pha­sis on rigor and out­comes mat­ter to U.S. foreign pol­icy? How does foreign as­sis­tance serve de­fin­able Amer­i­can in­ter­ests?

Many of our most danger­ous global chal­lenges — such as ter­ror­ism, the drug trade and pan­demic dis­eases — gather strength in coun­tries, or re­gions within coun­tries, that are poorly gov­erned, of­ten cor­rupt, and marked by high lev­els of poverty, hunger and dis­ease. These places are in­cu­ba­tors of risks to the United States. Con­sider Ebola, which took root in the weak health sys­tems of West Africa and threat­ened our na­tion and the world with death and panic. Or the poverty and conflict in the North­ern Tri­an­gle of Cen­tral Amer­ica, which led to tens of thou­sands of child mi­grants try­ing to make their way to the United States on the tops of trains. Or the col­lapse of sovereignty in Syria, which helped pro­duce the Is­lamic State and a ra­di­at­ing, desta­bi­liz­ing flood of refugees into Jor­dan, Le­banon, Turkey and be­yond. Or the weak gov­ern­ments of South Amer­ica, which are of­ten un­able to halt the flow of drugs that en­ter our coun­try.

These are all very real con­se­quences of poverty, in­sta­bil­ity and poor gov­er­nance. But gains in hope, health and sta­bil­ity re­duce these threats and bet­ter pro­tect Amer­i­cans. A for­ward-lean­ing Ebola re­sponse, em­ploy­ing Amer­ica’s full epi­demi­o­log­i­cal and hu­man­i­tar­ian ca­pac­ity, helped save lives in Africa and pre­vented the out­break from spread­ing around the globe. In the North­ern Tri­an­gle, our part­ner­ships have helped re­duce gang vi­o­lence and stem the flow of unac­com­pa­nied mi­nors to the United States. The Syr­ian cri­sis con­tin­ues apace, but our mas­sive hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­port for those dis­placed and in dire need re­duces the pres­sure of refugee mi­gra­tions to many na­tions, in­clud­ing our own.

One of the best ex­am­ples of the strate­gic role of aid has been in Colom­bia, where crim­i­nal gangs, vi­o­lent conflict and the world’s largest pro­duc­tion of co­caine threat­ened to desta­bi­lize the re­gion and the world for decades. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United States had a large se­cu­rity bud­get in Colom­bia and a small bud­get for devel­op­ment as­sis­tance. Then the Colom­bians em­braced a greater fo­cus on long-term devel­op­ment, which they in­te­grated into their sta­bi­liza­tion plans when ter­ri­tory was taken back from rebels. U.S. devel­op­ment as­sis­tance was in­creased, then in­te­grated and prop­erly se­quenced with de­fense ac­tiv­i­ties. As soon as land­mines were cleared and lo­cal of­fi­cials could safely re­turn to lib­er­ated towns, USAID poured in as­sis­tance, which was cru­cial to con­sol­i­date gains. Those long-term in­vest­ments are now pay­ing off, sup­port­ing peace ne­go­ti­a­tions and help­ing to rein­te­grate for­mer rebels and dis­placed civil­ians, in ad­di­tion to im­prov­ing busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties for U.S. firms. U.S. foreign as­sis­tance in Colom­bia gave sta­bil­ity and peace a fight­ing chance, and helped rem­edy a se­ri­ous se­cu­rity prob­lem for the United States and its al­lies.

This type of foreign as­sis­tance is es­sen­tial to pre­vent­ing the kind of un­con­tain­able strate­gic threats that might even­tu­ally re­quire mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion. (We are not talk­ing here about hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance, which should be

Slash­ing this tiny cat­e­gory of dis­cre­tionary spend­ing for the sake of bud­get con­trol would be a se­ri­ous mis­take.

driven en­tirely by the na­ture and scale of the need, or about direct mil­i­tary aid.) De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis made a com­pelling case for conflict pre­ven­tion when he was head of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more am­mu­ni­tion.” A small in­vest­ment in foreign as­sis­tance to­day saves big on de­fense later.

An “Amer­ica first” ap­proach to foreign as­sis­tance, rather than a re­treat, could mean de­ploy­ing foreign aid even more rig­or­ously to help keep Amer­ica safe.

How do we create an aid sys­tem that uses big data to iden­tify ar­eas of weak gov­er­nance that may pro­duce global threats? One that sys­tem­at­i­cally em­ploys the full spec­trum of as­sis­tance? One that uses in­for­ma­tion on mea­sured out­comes to ad­just poli­cies and prac­tices in real time? And one that ul­ti­mately builds lo­cal ca­pac­ity to con­front prob­lems?

There are spe­cific ac­tions the new ad­min­is­tra­tion can take to de­liver on this vi­sion. It should des­ig­nate a “co­or­di­na­tor for devel­op­ment” who is em­pow­ered to en­sure results from U.S. foreign as­sis­tance pro­grams. This co­or­di­na­tor could be the new USAID ad­min­is­tra­tor or the sec­re­tary of state him­self — but it must be some­one who sits at the prin­ci­pals ta­ble at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and has the clear back­ing of the White House. He or she would need to re­view ex­ist­ing ef­forts and de­ter­mine how they match ris­ing threats. To avoid be­ing just an­other layer of bu­reau­cracy, such an of­fi­cial should be autho­rized to move bud­get re­sources be­tween the State Department, USAID and the De­fense Department as nec­es­sary to ef­fec­tively pre­vent con­flicts. Un­der these cir­cum­stances, aid should be cat­e­go­rized in the bud­get as na­tional se­cu­rity spend­ing, not “non-de­fense dis­cre­tionary” spend­ing. And the Trump na­tional se­cu­rity team should make sure Amer­i­can lead­er­ship on these is­sues re­mains the bi­par­ti­san pri­or­ity it has been for decades, start­ing with propos­ing and defending a strong bud­get com­mit­ment to these ef­forts right now.

The next few months could mark a turn­ing point for foreign as­sis­tance, and it mat­ters greatly what kind. We could see the ero­sion of sup­port for a cost-ef­fec­tive in­stru­ment of foreign pol­icy and na­tional in­flu­ence — and we would see the con­se­quences of such neg­li­gence later, prob­a­bly in the form of mil­i­tary com­mit­ments — or we could see a re­form that makes foreign as­sis­tance a re­flec­tion of Amer­i­can ideals and a rig­or­ous in­stru­ment of Amer­i­can in­ter­ests. The lat­ter is a worthy and nec­es­sary goal for a great na­tion.

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