Ever since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has tried to live up to the myriad of campaign promises that he believes will “Make America Great Again.” However, some of these shortcuts to America regaining her allegedly lost greatness have been wrapped in troubling “America First” rhetoric. Understandably, this worries people who think Trump’s attitudes may influence policy in a way that turns the country toward isolationism and a weakening of diplomatic relations, prestige, moral standing, and homeland security. These concerns are specifically due to what they perceive as threats to the foreign aid budget, which affects America’s long-held belief that it should be a charitable and humanitarian force in the world.
$50.1 billion in annual foreign aid may seem like an astronomically huge sum, but in the grand scheme of an Obama proposed $4.15 trillion budget for 2017, it is a relatively small percentage — about 1%. Yet, a 2015 study revealed that the average American believes that the percentage of the budget that went to foreign aid is closer to 25%, and over half of the participants believe that the government spends too much helping other nations — a dangerous misconception. Because let’s face it, if you read that American bridges are crumbling all over the place, and you’ve been led to believe that a quarter of your tax dollars are going to building bridges in Africa, you’ll be far more put off than you will be by the real numbers.
And that uninformed anger is a real hurdle for those who advocate for more aid. This is especially the case in the era of Trump where uninformed anger has been such an asset to the new president and his habit of using hyperbole to get people’s hackles up. Moving past those obstacles will be a challenge, although meeting this objective will, quite literally, do a world of good.
The Importance Of Foreign Aid
Why does foreign aid matter? From a purely humanitarian standpoint, that money goes toward health initiatives, rebuilding damaged infrastructure, and working to eradicate systemic issues like child mortality, extreme poverty, and AIDS/HIV. While the distribution of foreign aid is not above criticism, it ultimately does the necessary work of narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots when it comes to getting access to health services in developing nations. There are other benefits, as well.
On top of alleviating the struggle of people living in developing nations, it just makes good economic and political sense, according to USAID:
“In addition to fostering stability, promoting economic growth and reducing poverty, foreign assistance also spreads American influence throughout the world and enhances America’s reputation and standing. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example–a region where national economies are rapidly growing and where U.S. health assistance is focused–more than 70 percent of countries surveyed by PEW earlier this year have a favorable opinion of the U.S.”
So, this means access to new markets, stronger diplomatic and military ties, and the knowledge that lives are being saved. But wait, there’s more, and it’s a more direct answer to this question: “But what does it do for me?”
From an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gayle Smith, the former USAID administrator spoke about the imperfect but still positive impact of foreign aid on the effort to stop terrorism’s growth at the root:
I think it [aid] can play a role, but I don’t think it’s as simple as, if we provide more foreign aid terrorism will stop. I think that if you look at those places in the world where you’ve got transnational threats — terrorism, human trafficking, money laundering, all those dangerous things that spill across borders — most often they are able to flourish in countries where people either don’t have access to opportunity or don’t have equal access to opportunity.
So I think that by investing resources in — not only the well-being of people but their ability to inform the decisions of their daily lives, their ability to have kids who are healthy enough to go to school so that each generation is able to do better and better — over time that protects us, and them, from these types of transnational threats.
So, aid can help in the fight against one of our biggest national security problems, and that’s reinforced by a study from the UK’s Department for International Development that states that areas with higher GDP are less likely to see internal conflict. Again, it helps. Obviously, it’s going to take a lot more than that to stop terrorism, but few problems have one big solution.
Trump’s Early Actions
We’re still in the very early days of the this presidency, so Trump’s full plans for foreign aid may not arrive for some time. However, Trump has made it infinitely clear that he has a negative view of foreign aid due to perceived economic and national security reasons. Early on in his campaign, he said, “We should stop foreign aid to countries that hate us.” Trump also told The Washington Post, “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 we would rebuild it three times. And yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn.”
We should definitely build schools in Brooklyn. No one is arguing with that. But of course, that kind of “either/or” rhetoric adds fuel to the narrative that foreign aid represents anything that is close to a significant outlay when we’re talking about the federal budget. Despite that kind of talk, Trump has also paid lip service to the importance of USAID and the infrastructures that they help rebuild as well, according to Impact 2016, a non-partisan initiative:
He noted “if we don’t help” countries facing disasters, then it would create “bigger problems.” On help to countries like Pakistan, he said “we don’t want to see total instability,” adding that the alternative could be more expensive and end up on the “other side of the ledger … could really be a disaster.” In the case of assistance to countries struggling with poverty, Trump said he would “try to keep some of these countries going” while underscoring the domestic and fiscal challenges facing the U.S.
When asked whether or not he would commit to doubling the number of people receiving HIV/AIDS treatment worldwide through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Trump said, “Yes, I believe so strongly in that and we’re going to lead the way.”
So, which Trump is the real Trump when it comes to his attitude on foreign aid?
If his earliest actions are to be used to determine that, then things don’t look good for those who value strong support for struggling nations. On top of ordering a review of many of former President Obama’s final relief decisions (which did come on abruptly in the months before he left office) including $220 million to Palestinians), Trump also reinstated the ban on government funds that go to foreign aid groups that provide abortion counseling (that is, making people aware that abortion is an available option). We’re not talking about providing abortions — that’s already illegal when it comes to federal monies and foreign aid. But while many on the pro-life side of the divide applauded Trump’s effort, there are some that believe that, by hampering clinics that provide women’s health options, family planning, and access to contraceptives, this move could actually increase abortion rates in the impacted countries.
While we’re sure to get more information about Trump’s plan on foreign aid in time, this initial step doesn’t bode well for a lot of people.
Can We Work Together In The Future?
In the past, both parties in Congress have been moderately successful in their efforts to put aside party differences to work together to promote “HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, clean water and sanitation, global agriculture and food security, reliable power access, and foreign aid transparency and accountability,” according to The Hill. Can this continue into the era of Trump? To this point, Republicans have shown that they are willing to go along with Trump, even on policies that are perceivably bad. But there are a couple of things that may bode well for the fate of foreign aid: the President’s penchant for flip-flopping and his reverence for generals.
Sparked by rumors that the foreign aid budget will get slashed to make way for Trump’s proposed $54 billion military spending increase, a group of retired generals put their names behind the cause to stop that from happening.
More than 120 retired US generals and admirals urged the US Congress on Monday to ensure that foreign aid spending would be protected, warning: “We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone.”
“The State Department, USAid, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way,” they added.
The letter, organised by the US Global Leadership Coalition, which advocates for robust aid spending was signed by some of the most prominent US military officers to serve in recent decades, including retired Gen George Casey, former chief of staff of the US army; and retired Gen David Petraeus, the former CIA director and commander of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
General Petraeus met with Trump in late November and was in the running for Secretary of State, so his name may carry some weight with the president. But how much remains to be seen. Trump hasn’t shown an affinity for showy demonstrations that are in opposition to his policies, so it’s entirely possible that he may brush this off as more partisan noise and move forward with whatever he has planned. This despite the urging of many who are in the know and the concerns that those actions could harm America’s reputation and jeopardize its safety in the long term.
This article was updated to include mention of the generals and admirals noted their opposition to possible foreign aid cuts in a letter to Congress.