Slashing international assistance hurts women and girls

Some of the more extreme proposals being considered would eliminate the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), our nation’s primary vehicle for delivering assistance. Not only does this political grandstanding not make sense from a cost-benefit point of view, it also does not reflect the real views of Americans.

When asked how much our nation should spend on foreign assistance, Americans across the political spectrum routinely call for ten times more than what we do spend; and show themselves to be extraordinarily generous in times of disasters. 

Girls’ education, disaster relief, health care and vaccinations for children, food aid, shelter for war zone refugees, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment get broad popular support in every survey. Yet these are exactly the areas hit hardest with the new cuts.

Steep cuts to maternal and child health programs mean that millions of women are at risk of dying in childbirth without skilled birth attendants; and their babies are at risk of being passed on HIV-AIDS because the drugs that prevent mother-to-child transmission will not be paid for. Cuts to basic education programs will mean that millions of girls will not go to school. 

Two of our nation’s biggest recent investments have been in global health and agriculture ensuring improved basic healthcare and less hunger among the most vulnerable. More than 60 percent of U.S. health program beneficiaries are women, millions of whom are living healthier lives, free from malaria and tuberculosis, thanks to these small U.S. investments. Cuts to agriculture funding would eliminate the President’s Feed the Future Initiative, which means nearly 6.5 million poor farmers—most of them women—won’t escape poverty and hunger.

Cutting these programs now—when our nation and the world are pulling out of a recession, global food prices and the number of hungry people worldwide are at an all-time high, and there is considerable turmoil in the Middle East and other frontline states where many of these programs operate—is penny wise and pound foolish.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, one of the biggest champions of civilian power overseas, said it best: “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.” International assistance helps us prevent security threats that require costly responses, in dollars and in American lives.

It is also an inexpensive way to build a foundation for a stronger global economy. Eleven of the fifteen largest importers of American goods and services today are countries that graduated from U.S. international assistance programs. The danger is that in the zeal to save a few dollars, we will lose all of the security and economic benefits that these investments provide.

Much of the hope for restoring some balance now lies with the Senate, which will vote on spending legislation in the coming weeks. There are signs of concern from Senators on both sides of the aisle that the cuts proposed by the House have gone too far and are, in fact, counterproductive to our nation’s interests abroad and even at home. 

The Senate would do well to heed the advice of former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright:  “Today, national security is as much about providing access to education and health care, opening markets for trade around the world and supporting human rights and democratic values, as it is about traditional defense programs.” Women around the world would surely agree.

Ritu Sharma is Co-Founder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide, the leading organization advocating in Washington, D.C. for U.S. policies that benefit the poorest women and girls worldwide.  Visit www.womenthrive.org