Foreign aid is fundamental, but we can do more with less

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Foreign aid needs smart thinking, not more money. America is at its best when challenged. President Trump has called on government to “do a lot more with less.” Commonsense reforms will allow foreign aid to cut costs while ensuring programs generate better and more lasting results with fewer dollars.

The administration has proposed a 31 percent cut to the budget of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers most American foreign aid. Ahead of this proposal, over 120 retired generals and admirals sent a letter to Congress stressing their conviction that foreign is crucial, alongside defense, in maintaining American security.

{mosads}This letter asserts foreign aid is “critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”


These two perspectives work together. The generals and admirals’ statement is powerful but uncontroversial. Aid is important for advancing U.S. foreign policy and interests. Though foreign aid has limitations, its benefits are powerful.

Foreign aid can be transformative in ways other foreign policy tools are not. Sanctions and military force are vital but reactive, optimized for addressing immediate situations. Foreign aid can fundamentally change conditions in sustainable, multi-generational ways. Its investment in education, good governance, and quality of life helps establish American values in developing societies and increases overall global stability.

Such stability benefits American security and defense. Research underscores the connection between instability and extremism. Foreign aid is optimal for eliminating conditions promoting radicalization. Sustained, long-term efforts reducing poverty and addressing local grievances will increase regional stability and decrease violence while also preempting the conditions creating refugee crises.

Stability benefits economic development as well. Foreign aid helps countries reduce unemployment levels and encourage GDP growth. Employment prospects deter radicalization of young, disenfranchised populations by offering stable lives instead of a path of hopelessness leading to extremism.

That benefits Americans, too. Growth in these countries increases local purchasing power, expanding the market for American goods and creating jobs here. USAID is a multiplying factor not just for US foreign policy but for America’s economy.

These strengths don’t preclude improvements or reforms. Americans deserve such reforms to ensure foreign aid does all it can to advance their interests and security. Significant operational insufficiencies exist in how we deploy foreign aid. These cannot be fixed by more money.  

Further increases in accountability and effectiveness are needed. Here, we can learn from our military: alliances act as force multipliers. Where possible, matching funds should be required for aid. Regional aid alliances ensure we are not alone in developing a region’s poorest countries. In Central Asia, for example, impoverished Tajikistan is surrounded by resource-rich neighbors with a stake in that country’s stability. We should work together.

America needs to eliminate the middleman, delivering aid to transparent and reputable local partners. Problems in this regard have dogged US foreign aid for years. Allegations exist that Egypt spent USAID funds for tear gas it used against its own people during the Arab Spring. Iraq and Afghanistan have seen concerns regarding hundreds of millions of questionably spent dollars and billions of dollars with shoddy or missing paperwork. USAID must work only with those worthy of being entrusted with American tax dollars.

USAID must develop an agile and strategic approach to governance. It will benefit from increased consultation with private sector leaders in decision making. Such individuals offer useful perspectives on programs, improving quality of life and maximizing return on expenditure. Like Secretary Rex Tillerson, now at the State Department’s helm, such leaders are experienced in getting better results with fewer dollars.

USAID needs to adopt a private sector conception of risk. Understood and evaluated in terms of potential reward, risk can be positive. A risk-based framework should be developed for selecting and implementing projects.

We need to ensure consistency in allocating funds. Aid serves America best when focused on long term objectives, not shifted in response to popular but momentary concerns. Human experience must be brought into the equation. Strategic decision-making involves balancing emotions and critical thinking. American aid has seen much of the first but too little of the second.

Eliminating foreign aid, as a few have suggested, would be disastrous. Aid’s existing benefits in advancing U.S. interests, combating extremism and creating economic opportunity would be cease.

However, the idea that more funding equals better results never works. The president knows that. Prudence must be the word always on our tongues.


Sada Cumber is the founder of SozoTek, Inc. and serves as its chairman and chief executive officer. Sada Cumber was a U.S. special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) under President George W. Bush. Cumber served as the U.S. representative to the OIC, and sought to promote improved dialogue and understanding between the United States and Muslim communities around the world.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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