SEATTLE, Washington — The U.S. has long been a champion of global health aid, contributing more than $140 billion in the past two decades to support health assistance around the world. Despite domestic struggles in containing the novel coronavirus, the U.S. has still contributed $1.6 billion in the State Department and USAID funding towards COVID-19 aid. The U.S. military is of the key actors in delivering this aid to developing countries.
A Productive Partnership
The Department of State is responsible for implementing U.S. foreign policy goals through diplomatic policies. To emphasize the importance of the State Department’s role in foreign policy, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis once said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” One of the ways that diplomacy and defense work in tandem is through the Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) exchange program.
The POLAD program began during World War II when diplomat Robert D. Murphy began advising General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of US troops in Europe. This provided the template for an exchange program between the Departments of State and Defense. Post-war, the State Department officially create the POLAD program, sending foreign service officers (FSOs) to military commanders as staff advisors.
After the 9/11 attacks, the government realized that neutralizing threats would require multifaceted approaches. This led to a closer relationship between the State and the Department of Defense (DoD). In recent years, POLADs have been recognized for their roles in deepening alliances, such as in the Indo-Pacific and the facilitation of returning Syrian and Iraqi refugees to their home countries. Right now, though, their most important responsibility may be ensuring the smooth delivery of COVID-19 aid in the Americas.
SOUTHCOM’S Humanitarian Assistance Program
U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is the branch of the military devoted to operations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Within SOUTHCOM, the Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP) provides funding and U.S. government support for disaster preparedness and response efforts across the Americans. HAP has become vital in the wake of the pandemic and reliant on the POLAD program to achieve its current level of success.
As the coronavirus spread across the world and reached the Americas, the need for emergency medical support swelled. While typical titans of U.S. foreign aid, such as USAID, were awaiting emergency funding allocations, SOUTHCOM’s HAP filled the void by immediately mobilizing. The military deftly responded to the requests of American embassies across the region. As a result, HAP funding has provided more than $33 million to 402 projects in 28 countries as of mid-December. These impressive numbers belie the deep human impact of the military’s rapid mobilization.
In Ecuador, where the virus ravaged the cities of Guayaquil and Quito in the spring, HAP has coordinated 20 projects to equip first responders with personal protective equipment, lab supplies and hygiene products. Meanwhile, in Peru, SOUTHCOM is collaborating with the American embassy in Lima to increase the production of medical-grade oxygen. These countries have been some of the hardest hit in the Western Hemisphere, but the U.S. military has extended COVID-19 aid since the outbreak of the virus.
The expertise and innovation that defense-diplomacy cooperation creates will continue to be an essential element in the U.S.’s foreign aid approach, especially as the pandemic continues. Humanitarian outreach from SOUTHCOM and other actors must continue to fill in gaps in preparedness amidst the worst social and economic catastrophe in recent history. Programs such as the POLAD exchange will continue to place talented government employees in positions to maximize the contribution to U.S. foreign aid missions providing COVID-19 aid.
– Jack Silvers
Photo: Maria Pinel