The Ethics and Practicalities of Foreign Aid

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The Boston Globe

The Ethics and Practicalities of Foreign Aid

Sudanese dockers unload a U.S. aid shipment at Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast on May 5.  (Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

As a lifelong advocate for development aid for the world’s poor, I am angered by the reported plans of the Trump administration to slash US foreign aid. I know how many children will die or grow up without access to education if President Trump’s proposals are adopted. I know that the financial savings for the United States will be trivial, but the costs to millions of impoverished people will be enormous.

Even worse, the cuts in aid are designed to fund an increase in military spending, one that is unnecessary and that should not be funded on the backs of the world’s poorest people. Instead of cutting aid to fund a $54 billion increase in military spending, we should be slashing $54 billion (or more) in defense to increase aid for health, education, renewable energy, and infrastructure, as well as urgently needed spending at home.

Trump’s plan will surely appeal to the racist followers of Stephen Bannon and Breibart News, and perhaps that is their main purpose — to pump up Trump’s base. Yet they will also cause enormous harm to America itself, not only to our nation’s soul and moral standards, but to American national security and jobs as well.

My own support for foreign assistance is based on morality. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” we are told in the book of Deuteronomy. Those who fail to help the poor cast themselves outside of the moral community. “For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me,” warns Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

Charity (zakat) is a bedrock of Islam. Compassion is the very core of Buddhism. Indeed, for all systems of morals, both religious and secular, treating others as we would be treated is the very essences of morality. If my own children were hungry, without medicine, or without schooling, I would desperately want them to be helped. Our responsibility is equally clear. Moreover, I believe, along with the teachings of the ancient prophets, that a nation built on iniquity cannot long survive. It will come apart at the seams, as America may be doing today.

I also know, as a development practitioner now for 32 years, that foreign aid works — when we put in the honest effort and thinking to make it work. I am not talking about the kind of US aid that is handed over to warlords, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d cut out that aid in a moment. I’m not talking about aid that is handed out by the US military. I do not believe in the Pentagon and the CIA’s campaigns for “hearts and minds,” designed by people whose real training lies not in providing public health, but in killing. And I’m not talking about the aid delivered largely by American expatriates in somebody else’s country. Almost all local service delivery should be carried out by locals except in exceptional circumstances (e.g., in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters when all hands are needed).

Aid works when its main purpose is to finance supplies such as medicines and solar panels, and the staffing by local workers in public health, agronomy, hydrology, ecology, energy, and transport. US government aid should be pooled with finances from other governments to support critical investments in health, education, agriculture, and infrastructure, based on professional best practices. That’s how the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria works, as one important example. It’s a model of success.

This kind of aid is not “the White Man’s Burden,” as has been alleged. The responsibility to help the poor is carried by no race for any other race. This is not about whites helping blacks, or about greens helping blues for that matter. It is about the rich doing what they should for the poor. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Or as John F. Kennedy put it, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Nor is good aid about “the poor in the rich countries helping the rich in the poor countries,” as foes of aid have quipped. When aid funds are directed towards the basics — safe childbirth; immunizations; control of diarrheal diseases, malaria, and HIV/AIDS; irrigation for smallholder farmers; information and communications technologies for e-governance, e-finance, e-education, and e-health; ensuring access to schooling; protecting biodiversity; and restoring degraded lands, the beneficiaries will be the poor. And as long as America maintains fairness in the US tax system, the rich will be bearing their fair share. It is true that a politically viable aid program goes hand in hand with a fair tax system.

There is a lot of negative propaganda about foreign aid, since foreign aid is an easy target. There are very few knowledgeable people around to defend it, and the recipients kept alive by it don’t vote in US elections. We certainly hear an earful: Aid is wasted; aid is a huge budgetary burden; aid demeans the recipients; aid is no longer needed in the 21st century. Aid, in short, does not work.

The simple fact is that some aid is wasted and other aid is used brilliantly. The main issue is whether the aid directly supports the work of local professionals saving lives, growing food, installing rural electricity, and teaching children, or whether the aid goes instead to foreign warlords or overpriced American companies. Our responsibility is to fund the aid that works, and when aid has been demonstrated to work, as in public health and education, to expand the assistance as it’s needed by the poorest of the poor.

Aid is a tiny part of our budget, around 1 percent of the Federal Budget, and less than one-fifth of one percent of national income. It is 25 times smaller than the outlays on the military (adding together the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, nuclear weapons programs, veterans’ outlays, and other military-linked spending). And as Trump himself has acknowledged, military spending has squandered many trillions of dollars in Middle East wars that have only exacerbated global threats and US insecurity.

Aid is not demeaning. Aid enables HIV-infected mothers to stay alive and raise their children. Demeaning? Aid enables a child in an impoverished country to escape death or permanent brain damage from malaria, a 100 percent treatable disease. Demeaning? Aid enables a poor child to go to a school fitted with computers, solar power, and wireless connectivity.

Aid is definitely needed still, albeit by a smaller and smaller share of the world. In the 1940s, aid was vital for Europe; hence the Marshall Plan. By the 1950s, Europe had “graduated” from aid; the focus was on Latin America and parts of Asia. Most of those countries too have long since graduated. Aid today should focus on the countries that are still poor — roughly the 1 billion or so people in the low-income countries and the poorest of the middle-income countries. By 2030, with open world markets, improved technologies, and a boost from adequate aid flows for health, education, agriculture, and infrastructure, these remaining countries too could graduate from aid by around 2030.

Another myth is that the United States carries the aid burden while other governments shirk their responsibility. This is plain wrong. The United States spends less as a share of our income than other countries spend as a share of their income. US aid is now just 0.17 percent of US Gross National Income (GNI), roughly $32 billion in aid out of a GNI of $18 trillion. The average aid spending by other donor governments is more than twice the US share, around 0.38 percent.

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The best aid giver among our last three presidents was George W. Bush, who created successful US-led efforts to fight AIDS and malaria, and thereby saved millions of lives. By contrast, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama did very little during their presidencies. Obama’s main contribution was to continue Bush’s programs but without funding the rising needs.

The moral justification of aid, as powerful and adequate as it is, is matched by an equally important case of self-interest. Aid is a matter of US national security and economic interest.

Regarding the links of aid and national security, there is no need to listen to a moralizing economist. Listen directly to the generals. More than 120 retired generals and admirals recently wrote to the congressional leaders of both parties to defend aid as a critical bulwark of national security:

“The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps, and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way. As Secretary James Mattis said while commander of US Central Command, ‘If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.’ The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism — lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.”

For this reason Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has said of the Trump proposal to slash aid: “It’s dead on arrival, it’s not going to happen, it would be a disaster. This budget destroys soft power, it puts our diplomats at risk, and it’s going nowhere.”

What is especially foolish about the Trump proposal is that the United States would be slashing its own aid precisely when China is ramping up its aid. China is signing and financing major development projects across Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Western Asia, and Africa. China may already be the world’s largest aid giver. Trump’s plans would accelerate the transition to China’s preeminence. Who will find diplomatic support in the next global crisis, China or the United States? And whose companies will win the next round of major infrastructure projects?

We must ultimately acknowledge another more radical, and more accurate, perspective: that this is not aid at all, but justice. There are two senses in which “aid” is absolutely the wrong word when it comes to helping the world’s poor. Both the United States and China can and should do their part.

The first returns us to morality. In his wonderful encyclical “Populorum Progressio” (1967), Pope Paul VI noted this of giving to the poor: “As St. Ambrose put it: ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.’ ”

Yet this question of “appropriating things . . . for the common use” is appropriate in a dramatically literal sense as well. The rich countries, including our own, have long robbed and despoiled the planet for our narrow economic gain. Britain, the United States, and other powers have made a career of stealing the oil, gas, and minerals out from under the sands of other nations. Our countries transported millions of African slaves to work the plantations stolen from indigenous populations. Our multinational companies have routinely bribed foreign leaders for land and oil reserves. Our government has launched dozens of coups and wars to secure oil, gas, copper, and banana and sugar plantations and other valuable resources. Our fishing fleets have illegally and recklessly scoured the seas, including the protected economic zones of the poorest countries. And our reckless emissions of greenhouse gases are directly responsible for droughts, floods, and extreme storms around the world, with a president and oil industry too evil even to acknowledge the basic scientific truths.

There is a real question: Who has aided whom over the past centuries? And can we live in morality and peace?

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, and is director of the Millennium Villages Project. A recent survey by The Economist Magazine ranked Professor Sachs as among the world’s three most influential living economists of the past decade. Sachs is the author, most recently, of The Age of Sustainable Development," 2015 with Ban Ki-moon.

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