President-elect Donald Trump made scant mention of global poverty during his campaign. In therare instances when he mentioned international development, his stance was brutish and short: “Stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.”
Like many moments in this post-truth political era, Trump’s missives reveal not only the absence of a solid policy stance on international development assistance, but also misconceptions of what we actually do with our aid and how it serves our interests. Yet, as president, he will wield enormous power over our global development agenda, from appointing or nominating leaders on development in the White House cabinet, State Department and the heads of the world’s largest aid agencies; to working directly with Congress to set the agenda and budget for our foreign aid. Trump’s plans for US policy towards international development are not yet clear. But unknown intentions here are not the biggest danger; it’s misinformation. It’s time to set the story straight on aid.
Numerous public opinion polls reveal that most Americans think we spend nearly 25 percent of our federal budget on foreign aid. This fictitious figure leads most poll respondents to support massive cuts to our spending. But in reality, the actual amount we allocate to foreign aid is less than 1 percent of our national budget.
Moreover, the total foreign aid budget — around $50 billion in 2017 — includes our military aid. Development and humanitarian work accounts for less than 70 percent of the total foreign aid budget. When placed in context of our $4.2 trillion federal budget and the $632 billion we spend annually on defense, development aid is one of the smallest parts of our overall budget. When such facts are clearly presented, a majority of Americans support keeping spending levels thesame or even increasing aid.
In 2016, the US spent nearly $32 billion on international development aid. This is nearly one-fifth of all the aid provided in the world. Nearly 20 percent of these funds goto global health initiatives, including fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, and addressing the nutrition and well-being of mothers and children in least-developed and war-torn countries. Aid is also increasingly focused on helping countries adapt to climate change and become more resilient to natural disasters and complex emergencies, all of which may reduce the future need for costly US relief assistance after devastating events, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In sum, our aid does not simply represent alms to the poor. Aid, when properly administered, directly serves US national interests.
To be sure, development aid is not immune from criticism. Many are concerned rightly that aid is thwarted by instances of corruption and waste. But these arguments against aid, like misinformed public opinion, neglect the tremendous contributions that aid has made to solving some of theworld’s worst problems, such as eradicating polio, dramatically reducing deaths from malaria and driving enormous improvements in young children’s nutrition and education.
Today, the United States remains one of the largest development donors in the world in absolute terms, but we fare poorly in relative terms. Our $34 billion in planned development spending in 2017 represents a mere 0.21 percent of our gross national product (GNP). This falls far short of an international commitment we made nearly 47 years to give 0.7 percent of our GNP each year to development aid. We continue to be shamed by comparison with our peers, including the UK and Sweden, both of which have each met and exceeded this pledge.
When it comes to global development, it’s time to get the facts right. Then it’s time to do theright thing and fulfill our responsibilities to the world’s poor.