What Trump's foreign aid fight can teach us

What Trump's foreign aid fight can teach us
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Last week Trump backed down from his controversial threat to cut billions of dollars in unused foreign aid funding. The news no doubt came as a huge relief to the more than 90 aid organizations that had joined together to urge him to reconsider. Sam Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction, an alliance of more than 180 international NGOs, had even considered suing the White House but worried the move would ignite political divisions and renew calls to defund the “aid industrial complex.”

Of course, no one who depends on appropriated funds can be expected to welcome their rescission and the legality of Trump’s anticipated action is certainly worth debating. But the more important question to put to those whose work was made precarious by this fight is, why are you putting your trust in political benefactors to help people in poor places? A switch to voluntary funding would cut out some of the drama. There’s also a case to be made it would lead to better outcomes, too.

Aid inefficacy under the traditional government-funded model has been widely criticized over concerns of waste and, more importantly, the negative unintended consequences foreign aid can have on low-income populations.


Governments and outside organizations, in general, tend to blunder when trying to plan for local communities, each with its own rich histories, traditions and values. Those blunders are too much to ask vulnerable populations to absorb. Aid organizations understand this problem and have begun making efforts to incorporate local perspectives in their plans, but even that may not be enough.

Innovators in the poverty space are now recognizing how critical even individual choices are in the process of finding a successful path to prosperity. Obama appointee and MacArthur Genius grant winner Mauricio Miller argues in his book The Alternative that we undermine individual initiative and the budding social ties that communities depend on for success when we intervene as institutional outsiders because we can’t help but dominate with our own ideas and resources.

What is needed, instead, are local agents of change who are free of the influence of political benefactors and committed to expanding economic choices for individuals in low-income populations. One compelling example of this is the independent, local think tank.

According to monitoring performed by my organization, Atlas Network, the quantity and quality of such think tanks have exploded over the last 20 years. Once marginal, today local think tanks are highly effective agents of change.

We have invested in numerous locally-led think tank projects that have achieved results. Those successes include the removal of legal barriers for street vendors in India, the reduction of artificial costs on sanitary napkins for women in Sri Lanka and increased access to technology for schools in Argentina. Those projects succeeded because they were wholly conceived, managed and led by local visionaries for change.

As outsiders, Americans should no longer pin their hopes on government-led solutions to ending poverty abroad. But we can still be generous in this noble fight. We can and should support local organizations committed to achieving results.

There is a false assumption that private efforts will never match government largesse. But consider the fact that, according to Charity Navigator, Americans annually give away north of $400 billion for charitable causes. That’s more than double the total foreign aid provided by all national governments combined.

We are not divided over our collective desire to see poor places thrive. But we need to come together to prioritize our own private, voluntary support for local organizations in the places that need our help. If the past week has taught us anything, it’s that poverty is too important a cause to leave to the caprice of politics.

Matt Warner is president of the nonprofit Atlas Network and editor of the forthcoming book Poverty and Freedom: Case Studies in Global Economic Development.