Why Congress shouldn’t slash foreign aid

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With a Congressional budget showdown all but inevitable, U.S. foreign assistance is once again on the chopping block. As two long-serving Republican former members of Congress, we believe the fiscal situation in this country demands bold action. However, we are deeply concerned about the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ recent proposal to make sweeping cuts to the budgets of the State Department and at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The last few months of global turmoil have sparked new calls for U.S. leadership in uncertain times. Slashing the 1% of the federal budget allocated to international affairs will do little or nothing to tame the deficit, but it will seriously hamper our ability to conduct an effective foreign policy. General David Petraeus noted in recent Congressional testimony that, “Inadequate resourcing of our civilian partners could, in fact, jeopardize accomplishment of the overall mission” in Afghanistan. The same can be said for other security hotspots and the broad swath of the developing world where we are standing for human dignity and competing for influence against other nations that do not share our values.

A robust international affairs budget, coupled with reform of our foreign assistance system, will help us strengthen our global leadership and navigate fast-moving challenges across the globe. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East.

Were we to scale back our diplomacy and development efforts — as some lawmakers have proposed — we would be turning our backs on the democratic movements in the Middle East at the very moment we have a historic opportunity to reorient our relationship with the region. Our development and democracy-building assistance will provide crucial resources to help create inclusive political systems, build strong civilian institutions, and catalyze investments in small and medium enterprises. If stability and democratic growth are what we want over the long term, we need to talk about improving the civilian tools of our foreign policy, not abandoning them.

But our diplomacy and development programs do more than help emerging democratic movements in the Middle East. They also help open new markets to U.S. goods and services, protect human rights, and save lives from deadly diseases. Foreign assistance has empowered 43 countries to cut the incidence of malaria in half, and enabled 42 million African children to attend school. Our long-term development goal remains graduating countries to self-reliance. Korea serves as an important model for this goal. It is easy to forget that only fifty years ago Korea had life expectancy and per capita GDP on par with most sub-Saharan Africa countries. Today, Korea is a foreign assistance donor with a formidable modern economy.

We are helping female leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere reduce the gender gap and maintain the momentum for women’s increased access to healthcare, credit, land, education, and employment. Studies have shown that when 10% more girls go to school, a country’s GDP increases by an average of 3%.

The proposed budget by the House Foreign Affairs Committee will cripple these programs just when they have the best chance to make a difference.

We don’t pretend that our foreign assistance programs are perfectly designed or implemented. What is needed is real reform of our diplomacy and development system so that we get better results out of the 1% of our federal budget that goes to international affairs. Considerable progress has been made on this front already.

The president, with support from Congress, has worked to change our development model by creating programs like the Global Health Initiative and crafting the first U.S. development policy, which focuses on economic growth, accountability, and selectivity, in order to create the conditions where foreign assistance is no longer needed. These advances in U.S. foreign assistance were built on the legacy of former President George W. Bush’s creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. In the last Congress, bipartisan members supported foreign assistance reform legislation in both the House and Senate. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah announced earlier this year that the agency is moving to save money and increase accountability across the globe.

We can’t afford to take a step back on these efforts, not at a time of unprecedented global instability that requires the strongest and most effective foreign policy we can muster. Our ability to take advantage of opportunities hinges on our willingness to invest in diplomacy and development and take steps to make these civilian tools of U.S. foreign policy more effective and accountable.

Jim Kolbe, a former Republican Member of Congress from Arizona’s 8th District, is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Senior Advisor to McLarty Associates. Connie Morella, a former Congresswoman from Maryland’s 8th District and former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is Ambassador in Residence at American University.