We’re facing extraordinarily challenging fiscal times. So as the president’s budget makes its way through the halls of the Capitol, lawmakers will carefully scrutinize every account, every program, and every initiative—as they should.
Some will be tempted to look to our international affairs budget as an easy target for cuts. After all, our development and diplomacy dollars don’t have as powerful a special interest voice as many domestic programs do.
But as a former congressman myself, and a former ambassador to a country where foreign assistance is making a crucial difference, I believe it would be a serious mistake for us to try to “fix the deficit” on the back of these programs. Simply put, whether it’s supporting our military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, responding to international disasters such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, or more generally advancing U.S. interests in key countries and regions throughout the world, our development and diplomacy tools have never been more vital to our national interests.
First, since fighting the threat of terrorism is perhaps this generation’s greatest challenge, we need robust funding for the very tools that can help prevent terrorism from spreading and growing. Let’s be clear: poverty does not cause terrorism. However, poverty can lead to despair, and despair is a condition that extremists know how to exploit.
If America is unmistakably visible on the side of those who are trying to sow seeds of hope and optimism, then it becomes harder for extremists to paint America as the “great Satan.” When I served as Ambassador to Tanzania, I was once confronted by a young activist who asked, “Why does America abuse its power in the world?”
I answered with a question of my own: “What is the No. 1 killer of your children?” After a pregnant pause, I answered my own question. “Malaria. Now who is doing more to fight malaria here than we are?” There was another pregnant pause. The ensuing murmurs amongst those gathered suggested that my response had momentarily shaken the perception of America that some had fed them.
I’m not sure I can foresee a time when we won’t have to invest heavily in our military and security capabilities. But my experience has taught me that our military tools are insufficient, on their own, to protect our country from the types of asymmetrical and unorthodox threats that confront us. In fact, our most senior military leaders from Defense Secretary Gates to the Joint Chiefs of Staff have repeatedly stated that our foreign assistance efforts must play a larger role within our national security strategy.
Second, we’re in the midst of a quiet revolution in foreign assistance that began early in the Bush administration, and is going just as strong into the Obama years. Through the creation of smart, new development programs and the initiation of much-needed reforms to our existing aid infrastructure, we have greatly expanded the reach and efficacy of our foreign assistance activities.
In 2003, President Bush and a bipartisan Congress teamed up to create the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest commitment any nation has ever made for an international health initiative dedicated to a single disease. Quite simply, PEPFAR has singlehandedly changed the course of human history on the African continent by providing lifesaving medicines to 2.4 million men, women, and children who otherwise would have had no hope. In its first five years from 2003-2008, PEPFAR met and even exceeded its ambitious goals to prevent the spread of 7 million additional HIV/AIDS cases, care for 10 million persons affected by the disease—including orphans and vulnerable children—and provide treatment to 2 million individuals.
In 2004, the president and Congress teamed up again to launch a visionary new development tool called the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The MCC promotes economic growth through the provision of substantial, multi-year infrastructure grants to a host of developing countries that meet strict criteria for economic freedom, democracy, and human rights. The MCC has already initiated assistance compacts with 20 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, and the MCC is providing transitional assistance to another 20 countries to help them enact the reforms necessary to become compact eligible. The MCC assistance model is based on country ownership, where recipient countries design and implement their own infrastructure projects in agriculture, transportation, energy, water, education, and other areas critical to economic growth.
In 2005, the President’s Malaria Initiative was developed as a way of intensively targeting 15 hard hit countries in Africa with the bold goal of reducing malaria-related deaths by 50 percent. In just its first three years, PMI reached more than 60 million people with prevention and treatment services and supported the training of more than 35,000 local health workers.
Just last year, President Obama unveiled an aggressive new global health initiative along with a far-reaching global food security program—both of which are designed to improve the impact of our development programs through greater coordination and prioritization of resources.
The State Department has also launched the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review to examine the strategic roles of diplomacy and development so that both D’s can be strengthened in the execution of U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, the White House is conducting a cross-government review of U.S. global development policy. There are also pending bills in both the House and Senate that take important steps toward foreign assistance reform.
Again, there’s no denying the fiscal challenges that our elected leaders have on their plate. But there’s also no denying how much of a difference our foreign assistance programs are making in key parts of the world. I hope that our leaders keep these thoughts in mind as the budget season—and political season—moves forward.
Mark Green is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Wisconsin. He also served as ambassador to Tanzania. He is the director of the Malaria No More Policy Center.