This morning, C-SPAN radio hosted a representative of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition to discuss the workings and impact of U.S. foreign aid.
Foreign aid is probably the least understood of all U.S. government spending items. According to a 2010 poll, most people believe that about 25% of the Federal budget goes to foreign aid. Those same people think that 10% would be a more realistic and fair amount to spend.
In fact, we spend only 1% of our budget on foreign aid -- about $50 billion per year.
Now, $50 billion is a lot of money. There are only a handful of people who have that much personal wealth, and the vast majority of corporations weigh in far below that sum in their total market capitalization. But the U.S. economy in annual terms is about $26 trillion.
Put another way, the same 1% of our $5 trillion Federal budget that goes to foreign aid is equal to less than 1/10th of a percent of our Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.
That does not mean that we are obligated to give money to aid other countries; we are not. We have the choice to do so, and we could choose to withhold aid for any or every nation that we presently support. Even if it meant starvation, disease, and death for the people of those nations, the choice would remain ours.
On the other hand, we get a lot for what we invest in foreign aid. We feed people who would otherwise be hungry. We make people well who would otherwise be sick. We keep people alive who would otherwise die. And for our efforts, we engender a lot of good will -- not everywhere, not in all cases, but in many, many cases.
One common claim that I hear from people opposed to foreign aid -- they are almost invariably conservative Republicans, though I do not know nearly enough people to claim that as a general principle -- is that "we should take care of our own people first."
That argument would make perfect sense. But keep the conversation going. Ask the people who make such statements how they feel about food stamps. About housing for the poor. Job retraining. Medicaid. Public education. Infrastructure. Check off the boxes one by one as they list the litany of reasons why the government should not be spending money on any of those things, about how we are in debt and need to drastically cut spending.
They say "take care of our people first," but they really mean "what's mine is mine." That is their right, but we should not be fooled by any claims of nationalism. Their real campaign is against giving aid at all.
Many people say that we do not have money to provide foreign aid. In the 1990s, after spending huge sums on weapons and equipment for the Afghani mujahadeen to wage war on Soviet troops, we decided that it was too costly to provide them with schools and factories. Afghanistan fell into chaos, then consolidated under the Taliban, who as we all now know gave shelter to Osama bin Laden and the violent fundamentalist group known as Al Qaeda.
In 2002, we began large-scale military operations in Afghanistan that continue to this day and have drawn in hundreds of billions of dollars. Had we been nearly as willing to pay for development as we were for weapons, there might have been no Taliban government, no refuge for Al Qaeda.
As we prepare to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks and debate the very same arguments that arose in the 1990s, with more than 100,000 American soliders still deployed in combat and support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should reflect on the true cost of foreign aid.
The alternative costs a lot more.