“Our national interests are inextricably tied to the security and development of our friends and allies.”
It may sound surprising, but these words were uttered three decades ago by none other than former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Reagan recognized that foreign assistance programs address the underlying problems causing some of the biggest threats to U.S. national security. Were he around today, I believe he would agree that our long-standing, bipartisan support for these investments should continue.
Reagan, like many others, understood that U.S. assistance to other nations benefits both sides. Education and training programs create opportunities, including for those who might otherwise migrate to other countries or be recruited by extremist groups.
Likewise, strengthening a country’s ability to prevent and respond to pandemics like Ebola reduces threats to Americans and our economy. Support for civil society reforms reduces corruption and promotes democracy. Simply put: Americans benefit when more countries are stable and better able to manage their affairs.
In more than 20 years of service at the United States Agency for International Development, I saw firsthand how U.S. leadership and bold approaches to foreign assistance can be transformative. While progress in the world’s most fragile environments is never easy, it can be done.
Today’s assistance programs have embraced the best lessons of modern management: evidence-based programs focused on key priorities, applying context-appropriate technologies and building ownership among a broad range of stakeholders to achieve sustainability.
Working in partnership with other countries and putting these modern concepts into practice, U.S. development assistance has contributed to tremendous progress. As detailed in economist Steve Radelet’s book, The Great Surge, development has helped lift a billion people out of extreme poverty since the early 1990s.
In the same timeframe, the average income of hundreds of millions of people in poor countries has more than doubled, life expectancy has increased by 6 years, and the percentage of people suffering from chronic hunger has been nearly cut in half.
Modern approaches have also opened the door to aggressive goals. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), initiated by President George W. Bush and taken forward by President Obama, has helped save millions of lives. The program has now set its sights on a goal that was previously unthinkable— an AIDS-free generation.
The bipartisan Feed the Future initiative seeks to reduce poverty, hunger and malnutrition in lower-income countries by investing in agriculture. In 2015, Feed the Future helped over 9 million farmers apply improved technologies and management practices, and reached 18 million children with nutrition programs. This is not just the right thing to do. A recent Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community stated that “[l]ack of adequate food will be a destabilizing factor in countries important to U.S. national security.”
To truly understand the progress being made, one must look up close. I’ve been honored in my career to meet women in Ethiopia, Kenya, Cambodia and Guatemala who have tripled their harvests through advice received from Feed the Future, allowing them to provide more nutritious food to their children and have more resources to pay for medicine, school, and other needs. These types of improvements for millions of people who live on the edge of subsistence mean the difference between a life of hopelessness and a life of dignity.
Americans should feel proud that their generosity is improving so many lives around the world. They should also feel confident that their investments are benefiting U.S. national interests. And while the impact of foreign assistance is vast, its price is surprisingly low. Total spending on foreign aid accounts for less than one percent of the federal budget, making it perhaps the best return on investment in national security.
My experience has demonstrated to me why, for more than a half century, Republicans and Democrats have agreed that foreign aid is an investment that pays off. What we’re doing is working, and my advice for the new administration is “be bold.” Foreign aid can fail for lack of ambition, but efforts like PEPFAR and Feed the Future show that bold, smart programs can be transformative and benefit the United States and our aid recipients alike.
Continuing this bipartisan investment in assistance will promote a safer and more prosperous world, and the United States will be better off for it.
Paul Weisenfeld JD is executive vice president for international development at RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition by turning knowledge into practice.
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