Making foreign aid work for the Heartland
American farmers have provided food for millions of people in crisis around the world for more than 65 years. By feeding the hungry, American farmers gave mothers the strength to care for their babies, helped young children stay healthy, and encouraged students to remain in school. For less than one percent of our national budget, foreign assistance also provides outsized American global influence. There is rare bipartisan consensus that foreign assistance is critical to our national security — effective diplomacy and development equates to a stronger American defense with fewer troops deployed abroad. In the emerging era of great power competition, American ingenuity, innovation, and generosity demonstrate unique advantages unmatched by Russia and China. The value-added national security benefits of foreign assistance substantially outweigh the costs to the taxpayers.
Yet, championing foreign aid is a tough sell in the heartland — particularly these days.
Americans face a raging COVID pandemic, economic collapse, social injustice, extreme political partisanship, accelerating consequences of unchecked climate change, and massive debt. For many Americans, there is little appetite to spend tax dollars to help foreigners in faraway lands.
Given this reality — coupled with the growing calls for isolationism — how can the Biden administration make foreign aid work for Peoria, Youngstown, Jackson, and the many other “forgotten” communities of America?
During this political transition, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), America’s lead foreign assistance agency, should connect the heartland to global development while unleashing its international expertise to help Middle America solve some of its most pressing problems at home.
Connect the Heartland to global development
A USAID-Heartland partnership clearly yields more than corn and soybeans. For instance, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in the middle of Trump country, offers an executive track MBA for Palestinians in the West Bank. Similarly, the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky has been training diplomats and foreign affairs specialists for decades. The State Department sends its Foreign Service Officers to teach at universities around the country through its diplomats in residence program. At a smaller scale, USAID can do the same with universities across America — and also detail faculty to the nation’s military academies, given that USAID and the Department of Defense work together so closely on complex crises around the world.
USAID can further leverage American technology and businesses for the global good. American farmers will continue to feed the world — but global challenges are far different today from when Food for Peace was launched by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. Climate mitigation technology, for instance, can be the mid-century American sector that drives lower carbon emissions, provides decentralized power, water and sanitation to the underserved, and creates trade opportunities for American innovators. USAID missions abroad should align much more tightly with the Commerce Department’s U.S. Commercial Service, the Development Finance Corporation, and the Trade and Development Agency to drive trade for American business and technology.
Refining the foreign aid model for the next decade could achieve better development results, check Chinese expansionism in African and Asia, and serve U.S. economic interests at home.
Finally, USAID should build next generation system architectures designed to track and blunt emergent threats. The Famine Early Warning System and Network (FEWSNET), launched in the mid-1980s, has substantially mitigated famine, allowing USAID to deploy resources months ahead in countries facing food insecurity. It is time to modernize, however. Building upon FEWSNET, USAID can engineer global pandemic monitoring systems that help the world combat disease while also helping to protect the homeland from future pandemics. The same holds for long-range climate forecasting where modeling allows scientists and policymakers to assist small communities — at the 10 square kilometer level — assess climate impact and then take considered adaptation or mitigation measures, years in advance.
These climate early warning systems are global but can also directly shape how American towns, small communities, businesses, and farmers plan now for consequential climate effects in the decade ahead.
Deploy global expertise to American challenges
There is an opportunity right now to pilot best development practices in the heartland.
Eight mayors from Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia recently advocated for a Marshall Plan for Middle America. These towns and counties need help. Ironically, there is no better expertise in implementing broad-based and inclusive economic development in vulnerable communities than USAID. Why not bring some of that expertise home to America?
USAID incubates ground-breaking health, education, and private sector projects around the world — what works in Uganda or Bangladesh may well be applicable in Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta. The reverse could also be true, lessons in vulnerable communities in America may work in the developing world. Better linkages and experiences would likely yield better results for American taxpayers.
Next, USAID can adapt first responder capabilities around the world to assist at home. The agency sends disaster response teams to help local communities cope with earthquakes in Nepal, tsunamis in Indonesia, fires in Israel, and hurricanes in Haiti. Given the scrutiny and oversight on foreign assistance, USAID must achieve a high level of performance and results. With this experience, USAID almost certainly can sharpen the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to American communities weathering similar tragedies. Establishing joint training cells and sharing best practices may make domestic disaster responses far more effective for people along the hurricane prone Gulf Coast and the wildfire stricken West Coast.
America is a generous, big-hearted nation. Our foreign assistance helps the most vulnerable around the world, but it also protects the homeland. With the beginning of the Biden administration, the U.S. is facing a new historic chapter as the post-World War II international order recedes. Once again, the U.S. will work with partners and allies to shape the future, confront threats, and project American leadership. A big America also requires that foreign aid work for the heartland. This task begins on Jan. 20, 2021.
R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.