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Foreign Aid: Sometimes, They Thank Us

Americans sometimes wonder whether all that foreign aid does any good. Laurie Garrett, an old WRM friend and colleague who does a lot of work on global health issues recently had one of those odd experiences that Americans meeting with foreigners sometimes have: somebody thanked her.

A few years ago at a medical conference in Madrid I met a German physician and her husband, and we chatted over plates of tapas. She told me that she had learned her excellent English by reading tiny scraps of paper. I did not understand, of course, so she explained that after World War II ended she found herself, at the age of 10, trapped in the part of Berlin controlled by the Soviet Army, surrounded by bomb devastation and unable to find her parents. Starving, alone, she scrambled through rubble in search of food and items she could sell on the black market. Then the United States Air Force began dropping CARE packages, small parcels loaded with food and hygiene products, and the ten-year-old girl learned to spot the planes and race past the Soviet tanks to snap up boxes packed with food she could eat, and supplies she could sell.

That experience led her to share some thoughts on the subject of American aid. Anticipating the current International AIDS Conference, she shares a vision of peoples of many nations shouting “thank you!” to America for her tax dollars that helped save lives all over the world.

Laurie isn’t expecting this to actually happen. As usual many of the AIDS conference delegates will spend time kicking Uncle Sam and berating him for his stinginess, imperialism and general all round shortcomings. Our European friends will sigh and shake their heads and wish we could somehow be as moral and enlightened as their own wonderful selves.

But there are extraordinary effects of American foreign aid that Laurie refuses to let pass unnoticed:

[F]olks in Kansas City, Memphis, Selma, El Paso and all across America need to know that you are, indeed, keeping nearly 6 million men, women and children alive with your tax dollars. Actually, the total is much larger than that, America, because 6 million is just the number of people that are every single day taking anti-HIV medicines that they receive through programs that you fund. Most of them are parents, so your keeping them alive means that they are around to care for their children — more lives you are saving.

And your dollars pay for HIV prevention campaigns in countries all over the world — millions more lives are saved, thanks to your generosity, because they never get infected with the awful virus in the first place. Oh, it gets better: Your tax dollars paid for the scientists that invented some of the medicines they are swallowing, and the diagnostic tests and much more.

Rather than arriving as bricks of money or wire transfers, American foreign aid at its most effective has always taken on varied forms — like those air-dropped CARE packages in Cold War Berlin. A lot of it comes from the private sector. For hundreds of years, America’s religious organizations have taken the lead in foreign aid. Not just famine relief or other bandage projects, but universities, hospitals, and the like. Going back to the 19th century, education in particular remains America’s most important form of aid; giving foreigners the opportunity to study here while erecting schools and colleges abroad has changed the world and enriched millions of lives.

This history underlines and crucial fact about foreign aid: it tends to work best when given from people to people and from one civil society institution to another. Aid exchanged from bureaucracy to bureaucracy has a much spottier record. Government based foreign aid has its place, however, and — as in federal support for health research that helped humanity understand and begin to cope with the AIDS pandemic — work originally done to help us at home also helps people overseas.

Finally, while some in the foreign aid lobby will probably never understand this, America’s most generous and most effective form of foreign aid has been our military might—winning WWII and the Cold War, recovering Europe through the Marshall Plan, and extending similar security umbrellas over many across the world today. Laurie’s story about the woman from Berlin captures this, and provides her the moment of gratitude—the quiet “thank you”—that so rarely comes. In addition to the Hershey’s Kisses that American children wrapped up and sent as CARE packages, Germans benefited from forty years of steadfast American military and political support that prevented Stalin’s troops from turning the whole country into a gulag and ultimately allowed the German people to regain full control of their own territory and to tear down that wall.

America sometimes gets a rap from the foreign aid lobby and certain self-righteous Europeans about the small percentage of aid in our national budget (meanwhile, some of our politicians complain we give way too much). But factor in what private giving does, and add the value of the military security we provide, and America shoots up to the head of the class.

Which is exactly where we should be.

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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Our foreign aid helps only a pittance of those being assisted by the Hamiltonian Strategy for World Domination, which has uplifted billions of people out of abject poverty. The Hamiltonian Strategy has lured most of the cultures of the world into the American Global Trading System (the largest and therefore most efficient market in history) by allowing them to think they are cheating the stupid clueless Yankees through the manipulation of their currency to gain a price advantage for their exporters.

    This strategy has resulted in the greatest explosion of growth in human history over the last few decades (the last piece of the strategy was put in place when Nixon got rid of the last dregs of the Gold Standard, which put a stake through the heart of Mercantilism which has inhibited trade throughout history), and permanently changed the cultures everywhere with exposure to the superior American Culture.

    Only now are some of those cultures that swallowed the bait, beginning to realize just how completely they have been caught, as China and others squeal about finding another reserve currency. Good luck with that little fishy, but you’ve swallowed the bait and now you are ours, and we are going to make you just like us (civilized, hard working, educated, and filthy stinking rich).

  • Corlyss

    When the European elites were doing all their ranting and raving about Bush and the Iraq war, I caught a report from Netherlands about how American tourists were getting an earful. The reporter found one elderly woman, a cafe owner, who said with tears in her eyes that she had no problem with Americans because she remembered THE war and how grateful she and her family had been to be liberated by Americans and how generous they were after the war. Those kinds are dying off as fast as the Greatest Generation are.

  • Kevin

    The only real effect of foreign aid to non democracies is to entrench the ruler in power and cause their people to hate us. The biggest non-democratic recipients of aid over the last decade have been Egypt and Pakistan – countries whose populations hate us. If we don’t need to bribe them for some very compelling reason of state we should not do it.

  • Hubbub

    I’m an optimistic pessimist; I hope things will get better, but I really don’t think they will. But I can say without fail, I can visit VM and get a virtual shot of optimism no matter how dire the situation. And that’s good, I suppose?

    In all honesty, however, our foreign aid today is nothing but another welfare system tacked on to our national one. No matter how vile, reprehensible, or totalitarian or democratic the system we well pay and pay for the illusive hope that these countries and people will love us – just like our on citizens who live on welfare in this country love the god government.

    I appreciate the German lady, but I’m afraid that’s from another, a different era, when a defeated country had no where else to turn.

    Ask Morsi in Egypt if he really, really appreciates the billions of US dollars approved for his Muslim Brotherhood regime, or if he really thinks Egypt is entitled to the aid and deserves more.

    How much are we going to throw at the Syrian ‘democratic’ people’s party when they assume control of the country? We will be there, arms extended, hands filled with cash, begging them to take it. With any luck, they will take it, ask for more, and then use it against us.

    O, Optimism, thy name is VM!

  • Mick The Reactionary


    “The only real effect of foreign aid to non democracies is to entrench the ruler in power and cause their people to hate us.”

    Almost right. A small addition will make it absolutely true:

    The only real effect of foreign aid to Democracies is to entrench the ruling leftists in power and cause their people to hate us.

    Non-leftist countries usually manage to do on their own without crumbs from impoverished uncle Sam.

    So, other than aid to democracies and non democracies, the foreign aid is a swell idea.

  • SteveMG

    The vulgarian Bill Maher doesn’t understand, he says, what is exceptional about America. He just opined in his twisted way of thinking that yesterday’s awful shooting was, in his view, evidence of this exceptionalism of a bad sort.

    No, Mr. Maher, we’re exceptional despite creating people like you.

    Perfect? Of course not. Exceptional? In many many ways.

  • john vrklan

    I’ll take the optimistic outlook over the cynical and pessimistic view any, and every time.

  • James Ferguson (@kWIQly)

    We are not thanked for second hand clothes – These take jobs from cotton fields, opportunity from seamstresses and self-respect from any wearers of traditional dress.

    We should not be thanked for thoughtless giving.

    Educational support, books, and access to information are the highest priorities.

  • Andrew Allison

    I think that a good argument can be made that foreign aid should always be in kind, and never in cash. Why would one imagine that money given to a government which has failed its people would be put to good use? This is an area where we could learn from the Chinese, who give their aid in the form of infrastructure.

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