SEATTLE — “Why should the U.S. be responsible to fight poverty abroad when it has its own problems?”
It is a question that advocates and other supporters of a stronger foreign aid budget will inevitably hear. From skeptical family members to legislators in Congress, many U.S. citizens believe that the country has too many of its own issues to deal with before spending extra to help other nations. Despite their best efforts, advocates have trouble getting many of their peers to fight global poverty because of this attitude.
One of the biggest obstacles in the way of getting others to support foreign aid spending is the enormous U.S. national debt. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that U.S. debt is 74 percent of GDP and rising, and in the future this could lead to higher taxes and weaker government programs.
Most U.S. citizens agree this problem is important. In a 2012 Pew Research study, 70 percent of respondents stated debt was a “major problem” that needs to be addressed now. While the country is divided about how deficits should be reduced, the study found that 45 percent of U.S. citizens wanted to cut foreign aid spending, while only 21 percent wanted to bolster it.
Today, U.S. international development is only one percent of the total budget, a mere drop in the bucket compared to defense spending and other domestic programs. Despite the small size of the program, most citizens overestimate its size. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll reported that the average citizen believes that the foreign aid budget is 28 percent of all spending.
Still, showing the limited extent of U.S. foreign assistance will not necessarily convince people to demand more. The Kaiser poll indicates that only 28 percent of U.S. citizens that know the true size of the foreign aid budget want to increase its size. Moreover, 30 percent of informed respondents still thought that one percent was too much international development spending.
How can advocates and other concerned citizens persuade those opposed to more spending to support foreign aid and global poverty reduction? Perhaps the key is to stress the large economic returns that foreign aid provides to countries that pursue it. In other words, foreign aid is not a donation but rather an investment.
“The growth of the developing world presents a major economic opportunity for American business today and a thousand opportunities tomorrow,” said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. U.S. firms can create new markets by helping people escape poverty, and this in turn leads to more U.S. exports. A stronger foreign aid budget can make domestic business more competitive globally and can generate additional revenue to reduce deficits.
Historically, international development programs have led to huge returns. Today, South Korea—which received aid after the Korean War—and Europe—which received Marshall Plan aid after World War II—both purchase U.S. goods worth more than the amount spent on aid every year.
The historical trends hold true today. A study conducted by the U.S. Global Leadership Conference found that the developing world contains hundreds of millions of potential buyers for U.S. exports. If the American people and leadership do not pursue foreign aid to enter these potential markets, the U.S. could miss out on billions of dollars of revenue and have an even harder time dealing with its debt.
Foreign aid is a worthwhile expense not only because of how it can improve so many lives around the world but also because it leads to large U.S. long-term profits. Though many advocates for international development stress the impact of the former, it is the latter that may garner more support. From helping U.S. companies prosper to even reducing sovereign debt, a strong foreign aid budget will help, not hinder, the U.S. in dealing with many of its own problems.
– Ted Rappleye