Why Biden Should Boost U.S. Foreign Aid
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Biden can use aid to rebuild America’s damaged reputation and promote global stability.
By Oussama Mezoui
President-elect Joe Biden has inherited an America whose global brand has been battered by an isolationist approach, including attempted cuts to foreign economic assistance and humanitarian aid. Increasingly, swaths of the world are relying on other powers like Beijing, rather than D.C.
As a humanitarian, I have always believed that aid should be an end in itself. But Americans who are skeptical of its inherent value should still see that aid is essential as a means to achieving America’s most important objectives.
To fulfill Washington’s ethical obligations as well as continue its role in world affairs, Biden must not only maintain American commitments to foreign aid, but significantly increase them. This can strengthen “Brand America” while boosting security in an increasingly fragile post-COVID-19 world.
President Donald Trump was unable to pass some of his proposed foreign aid cuts through Congress, but aid still doesn’t have the level of support it should in America. While the U.S. still has the largest foreign aid budget in the world — as a proportion per capita, it sits at 17th — the United Arab Emirates tops the list and Turkey contributes a quarter of all foreign aid.
The situation America will find itself in post-COVID is not dissimilar to the one it found itself in after World War II.
Emerging regional and global powers know that aid matters, and they’re investing in it. In the 21st century, there is no influence without aid. If Biden doesn’t turn out to be an aid-focused president, this will not only hurt him at home, but will open more doors for an increasingly influential (and even admired) China abroad.
The situation America will find itself in post-COVID is not dissimilar to the one it found itself in after World War II. The Marshall Plan, a package of unconditional financial assistance offered to European countries, was not purely humanitarian in intent. It also restored Europe as a trading partner and staved off the appeal of the USSR in a fragile continent.
It is this enlightened self-interest the U.S. will need more of in 2021 and beyond.
The building blocks are already there if there is the political will to build further. America’s Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act of 2018 was designed to generate “sustainable, broad-based economic growth, poverty reduction and development.” The aid commitments laid out in the BUILD Act prioritized humanitarian commitments, rather than dubiously labeled “aid” packages of (sometimes unused) military donations.
It is this kind of development aid that can complement China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in which 38 countries have signed trade and infrastructure deals with Beijing. The humanitarian impact of the BRI cannot be understated, with its forecast to lift 43 million people out of poverty.
One of the 38 members of the BRI is Italy. When the cries of “Grazie Cine” (“Thank you, China”) rang across Italian balconies in response to China’s COVID aid package to the European country, Washington should have listened and learned.
Humanitarian aid and foreign policy objectives intersect, and often very constructively. Biden can use an increased aid budget not only to rebuild America’s damaged reputation, but to create more global stability. Persistent fragility in Africa and the Middle East (some of it due to previous administrations’ foreign policy errors) generates an increased risk of terrorism, not just to America but to its allies.
One bipartisan study showed how political instability and violent activity in African countries with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — the U.S. effort against HIV and AIDS programs — dropped 40 percent between 2004 and 2015.
The link between aid and security is well-known, which is why military personnel wrote a letter to Congress arguing that U.S. programs “are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”
Despite these high stakes, foreign aid has been conspicuously absent from much of the coverage of Biden’s policies. Perhaps this is because the feeling that “charity begins at home” is stronger than ever as Americans struggle through the pandemic.
But opinion polls consistently show that Americans do care about foreign aid. They also hugely overestimate how much of the federal budget is spent on it (an average estimate of 25 percent, versus the reality of 1 percent).
Biden needs to remind Americans how little we actually spend on foreign assistance, and how much value and safety it creates for us. Once he’s done that, he should consider increasing it to address the unprecedented humanitarian crisis the pandemic has given birth to, and the opportunities this creates for America to reestablish its moral leadership.
Oussama Mezoui is president and CEO of Penny Appeal USA.
- Oussama Mezoui, OZY Author Contact Oussama Mezoui