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Opinion: In defense of foreign aid

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In the rocky world of foreign policy, building global relationships is a necessary precursor to success. It’s time, then, to stop viewing USAID as valueless charity and instead recognize it for what it is: a wise and principled investment.

The Trump Administration has signaled that USAID is on its way to the chopping block. The State Department and foreign aid is expected to weather a cut of up to 28 percent of its funding. To cripple America’s diplomatic reach in such a way is a serious misstep.

When the United States and its partners devote resources toward development abroad, particularly in the Global South, it is not merely an act of charity but rather the first step in establishing future trading partners and allies. Richer and more stable populations abroad create larger markets for American goods and enable these nations to better provide for themselves.

In regions where the United States continues to be mired in conflict, such as the Middle East, a more compassionate and development-focused agenda can also help untangle Uncle Sam from years of foreign policy blunders.

If our goal is to wean dependent nations off costly U.S. economic and military assistance, providing them with the tools for self-sufficiency would be a wise starting point. Otherwise, exercises in development quickly become exercises in futility.

Yet the public continues to resist efforts to expand our arsenal of diplomacy and development, more often than not for all the wrong reasons. Available data shows just how little many citizens know of our efforts abroad.

The figures are startling. A poll by the Kaiser Foundation found the average American estimated that 26 percent of our federal budget went to foreign aid, whereas the real number is around one percent. Most of those surveyed also felt the U.S. was spending too much on aid.

Until ordinary Americans understand the value of these investments abroad, we can continue to expect mediocre progress overseas. A galvanized public driven not just by morality but wise policy decisions as well is the only incentive for our leaders to make the necessary adjustments.

Our leading competitors already know the value of fostering development abroad; the Chinese One Belt, One Road Initiative is one of the Middle Kingdom’s most ambitious plans for asserting its influence abroad, and it does so by utilizing its economic assets rather than its military might.  

Considering the fact-based approach of foreign aid and development has demonstrated its effectiveness time and time again, it’s rather surprising this kind of outlook isn’t higher up on the list of current American priorities. If aid can compel 120 former senior military officials to petition Congress in its favor, it’s worth the attention of the American public.

As President Trump nears the end of his first 100 days in office and considers his path going forward, he would be well-served by focusing on development over destruction in his strategy abroad.

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