The swiftly arriving era of federal penny-pinching portends big cutbacks in US foreign aid, reports the New York Times:
America’s budget crisis at home is forcing the first significant cuts in overseas aid in nearly two decades, a retrenchment that officials and advocates say reflects the country’s diminishing ability to influence the world. […]
Representative Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas and chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign affairs, said that the budget crisis was forcing “a fundamental change” in how foreign aid is spent. Lawmakers and officials, she said, needed to prioritize spending according to American national security interests and justify those decisions to Americans who are generally skeptical of foreign aid. […]
John Norris, a former official at the State Department and the Agency for International Development, or U.S.A.I.D., said that the country could “be much more selective” in delivering aid “without doing much harm to the national interest.”
That a lot of foreign aid programs don’t work is clear, and there is nothing wrong with serious public debate about how active a cash-strapped US should be in dealing with various overseas troubles. Vast amounts of aid vanish in the impressive graft networks of poor countries from Afghanistan to Zambia, while some programs are little more than subsidies for American food processing facilities. Besides, private charity and remittances overseas already dwarf what the government gives.
But it’s also true that carefully directed foreign aid can advance important US interests and save us money in other ways. The 2004 tsunami response brought the US (especially the military) goodwill throughout South and Southeast Asia that we continue to reap in the form of cooperation against Chinese aggression and Islamist terrorism. As our military presence in Iraq dwindles, aid helps to keep us from ceding influence there to Iran, and helping a new Syrian government establish itself could also contribute to stability in ways that benefited important US interests.
Very unfortunately, however, the foreign policy elite in this country has gotten wildly out of touch with average Americans. Most foreign policy experts can neither design aid and economic development programs that make sense to ordinary Americans nor explain the programs we do have to a skeptical public back home. There are plenty of misconceptions out there about how US aid is spent, but to sell the public on more aid for chaotic and corrupt Tunisia and Egypt, Secretary Clinton will have to do more than call for a “new Marshall Plan.”
The Secretary of State has a lot of political credibility in the US, and she showed herself to be a very effective communicator in her 2008 run for the Democratic nomination. Maybe she needs to put more time and effort towards explaining to Americans why we need a well funded State Department and a focused and effective program of foreign aid.