More effective foreign assistance can pay real dividends

As a new Congress gets into gear, both Republicans and Democrats have a solemn duty to do the people’s work and to make sure their taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely. U.S. foreign assistance is already under the microscope, as it should be, but we believe policymakers should focus on making it better instead of slashing budgets. Foreign assistance accounts for less than 1% of our federal budget, and our investments in it can pay real dividends for the cost.

The world has changed dramatically even in the last decade, becoming more interconnected and full of challenges that defy narrow solutions. Our foreign assistance is a projection of our responsible leadership in the world; it is more important than ever to our security and economic interests. We must take the politics out of this debate and get down to the facts.

In terms of our national security, we provide extensive counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency assistance to “frontline states” such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. These civilian-led programs help build and train national army and police forces, support democracy and the rule of law, and improve destitute living conditions that can fuel extremism and anti-American sentiment.

Military leaders from Secretary of Defense Gates to Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen to Afghanistan Commander Petraeus have issued strong calls for strengthening civilian programs that take some of the burdens off of our war fighters, with Gates saying recently that helping countries develop “is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.”

Done right, our foreign assistance is also a key driver of helping these developing markets mature and become better places for U.S. exports and investment. Developing countries have the fastest growing economies in the world, and they are the next frontier for American businesses and products. We exported $510 billion worth of goods and services to developing countries in 2009, and the number is growing exponentially. For every 10% increase in exports, we received a 7% boost in employment at home, and 97% of businesses that benefit from exports are small-and-medium-sized enterprises. The more we do to help keep people healthy and give them the tools they need to thrive, the better these market opportunities will be.

We acknowledge that foreign assistance is in need of serious reform, but progress has been made and we must build on it. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), created by President George W. Bush, is helping responsible allies grow their private sectors and empower their citizens with economic freedom. U.S. foreign assistance has been directly responsible for saving more than five million Africans from the grip of deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria, thanks to President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and Malaria Initiative, as well as the work of churches, business leaders, and average citizens across the country.

In releasing America’s first-ever foreign assistance policy last year, President Obama made economic growth the key goal of our outreach efforts and said that the time has come to be more selective about our assistance, because the U.S. cannot do everything, everywhere, particularly in places that do not share our values of free people and free markets. At the same time, Dr. Rajiv Shah, the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has undertaken significant reforms to improve the agency by decreasing inefficiencies, increasing transparency, and in the process delivering millions of dollars in savings.