Every year, we hear arguments about foreign aid. Someone starts yelling about the federal government sending “all our money” to other countries, rather than spending it in the United States on the taxpayers, and Thanksgiving is ruined again. So what’s really going on?
What exactly is foreign aid?
Foreign aid is a big idea that costs us very little money. Essentially, it’s a fancy way of saying, money offered to help countries in times of need.
The United States gives over 100 countries around the world money to help them survive disasters, stabilize their economies and democracies, bring their people out of poverty, combat extremism, and fight health crisis through programs at the State Department, USAID, and 20 other federal agencies.
So, foreign aid in recent years has included:
Health Assistance: About a third of our foreign aid budget goes to health assistance, like helping on HIV/AIDS projects. We help developing countries battle malaria, flu pandemics, and infant and maternal mortality, saving and improving millions of lives.
Economic Assistance: One sixth of the money, about $2.7 billion, goes into infrastructure projects that can help a country climb from developing into developed. This could include building roads, increasing their access to phones or the internet, or electrification.
Humanitarian Assistance: One sixth of the money helps feed and house refugees from disasters and wars.
Other Assistance: Sometimes things just come up. Like the Ebola outbreak in 2015 – that came out of our emergency assistance. We give some countries a little money to train local law enforcement to fight drug trafficking. We support democratic elections in places where they are difficult or rare.
It also funds the Peace Corps teaching coding in American Samoa and digging wells in sub-Saharan Africa, the Department of Agriculture teaching modern farming techniques in developing nations, and so much more.
You know, the usual.
I read about some of those things in the news. When the U.S. was helping out, that was foreign aid?
Yes. I know, right? We just don’t think about it that way.
What’s it for? Why do we do this?
Because it’s a small world. To protect our national security interests. To promote our economic interests. Because it’s the right thing to do. People have a lot of answers.
It’s not just to make friends. Can’t buy me love, and all that. We frequently don’t agree with all of the decisions of the countries that receive our foreign aid. Sometimes, countries that receive U.S. aid actively oppose United States positions. Or fail to step in for us. But that’s their prerogative. It turns out that they’re independent countries and can make their own decisions.
But what it does do is ensure that the world is filled with stable democracies, so people can stay in their own countries and raise strong, happy, healthy children. When other countries are strong, safe places for people to live, when they have enough money to go see Hollywood movies and buy our exports, when they are not going to war with other countries for resources… America is better off.
So, basically, if you want to deal with our national defense, homeland security, immigration, trade imbalance, and a dozen other major issues all at the same time: foreign aid.
Ok – this sounds really important. How much money do we spend on all this?
What percentage of our federal budget would you guess goes to foreign aid?
Sorry – polls say that only 1 in twenty people will guess correctly. (But you were probably right. Let’s keep going so we can talk to those other people. Don’t rub it in.)
Most think we spend over 25% of the federal budget on foreign aid and think it should be closer to 10%.
In fact, we don’t spend very much at all. Less than 1% of our $4 trillion federal budget.
Got that? Americans think foreign aid should be 10% of our budget, it’s actually about 1%, and we still think it’s too high. Magic.
In 2015, we spent $35.4 billion on foreign aid. And while that sounds like a lot of money (a few billion here, a few billion there), in the cast of the federal government, it’s practically nothing.
For comparison, we spend:
- 18% of our budget on National Defense.
- 24% of our budget on Social Security.
- 2% of our budget on science and medical research.
- 3% of our budget on transportation and infrastructure.
But that’s still not very helpful, right?
Even single line items in the budgets of other programs dwarf foreign aid.
For example, a single F-22 fighter jet costs $190 million to produce. We bought over 190 of them. Total cost: $36.1 billion just to buy them. Or, a single aircraft carrier can cost over $11.8 billion, making the three on order by the U.S. Navy right now come in over $35 billion. Government spends over $8 billion just on incarcerating prisoners in federal prisons.
In fact, while we are one of the biggest donors to foreign aid, we have one of the lowest percentages of gross national income donated to foreign aid. Meaning, while we give a lot of money over all, other countries give away a much bigger part of their budget in foreign aid than we do.
This is ridiculous. Why don’t I know this already?
No idea. American has always had bipartisan support of foreign aid. In 2004, President George W. Bush established the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government foreign aid project also supported by President Obama. President Ronald Reagan established the National Endowment for Democracy to support free press, unions, political parties, and universities to foster democracies abroad. And President Barack Obama signed the first U.S. Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development to elevate development to the same level of diplomacy in our security and foreign policy. We just don’t always seem to agree on what is good foreign aid and what is bad.
It’s easy to say that we should cut something in our budget we think only affects others. Some politicians might forget that the money we spend abroad is critical to the health, wealth, and safety of their constituents at home. And so do their constituents.
Foreign aid is a bargain. For tiny amounts of money, we can help stabilize countries so they can stand on their own and create new economies. We can sell our goods there, trade there, and have them on our side in big conflicts. We can help save lives and eradicate diseases, both to help those suffering abroad and to keep those diseases from spreading to our shores.
Reality for the win.
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