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Reserving foreign aid for ‘friends’ who agree with the US misses the mark

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President Trump  threatened to slash aid to countries unable to stop drugs flowing into the U.S., claiming that these countries “are not our friends.” Many aid programs directly or indirectly focus on fighting the illegal drug trade. It would be short-sighted to redirect these resources to countries without drug trafficking problems.

Although the president did not specifically name the countries that would receive cuts, some obvious candidates include El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.  The U.S. Department of State has identified each of these countries as a major drug transit country, and the government estimates 90 percent of cocaine coming into the United States passes through Central America. Clearly these states meet the president’s description of countries that “can’t stop drugs from coming in.”

{mosads}This announcement was in sharp contrast to comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the previous day. He argued for addressing “security and development issues side by side” in the region because “you cannot expect to have one without the other.” He also acknowledged that “U.S. demand for drugs drives this violence and this lawlessness” in Central America.


Tillerson noted that the Alliance for Prosperity agreement between the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, “makes their nations stronger, and it makes ours safer.” President Trump just threatened to cut it.

Tillerson’s remarks reflect a mainstream approach to development promotion that has shaped policy for both liberal and conservative governments in the U.S. and other wealthy nations. In a globalized era we cannot insulate ourselves from problems associated with underdevelopment abroad. Wealthy states are increasingly allocating resources, including foreign aid, to forward their own interests through development promotion.

President Trump’s suggestion that countries might have aid cut because they are “not our friends” builds on his call to Congress during his State of the Union address “to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America’s friends.”

This statement was directed at aid-recipient countries that voted in the United Nations against the U.S. government’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Yet many of America’s interests are served by sending money to some of the 128 countries that voted against the U.S. decision. The vote did nothing to change existing U.S. interests, and it would certainly harm those interests if aid were suspended to all of these countries.

One of the main government aid agencies, USAID, funds the PREDICT program. This works to discover viral pathogens before large-scale human pandemics occur, possibly posing a serious threat to the U.S.

It funds programs related to avian flu in Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Bangladesh and Egypt. USAID also funds programs related to Ebola in Liberia, Guinea and Mali. All of these countries voted against the United States at the UN. This did nothing to change the U.S. interest in preventing pandemics.

In West Africa, trafficking in illegal goods is raising millions of dollars for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The U.S. provides aid to countries in the region to help combat trafficking and fund alternate forms of employment and economic growth.

Countries affected include Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, all of which voted against the U.S. on the UN resolution. U.S. interest is not served by abandoning attempts to combat jihadist groups in the area as a result.

Even if none of these cuts happen, the uncertainty does real damage. When program implementers do not know if the funding will continue, they cannot plan for the future. And this undermines effectiveness.

The president, and others, are right to question the results of aid programs and make changes where they can be improved. But in an era where our own interests are intertwined with what happens in developing countries, cutting aid is not the answer. Nor will it lead to significant savings: foreign aid makes up less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget.

There is a final irony in juxtaposing President Trump’s two calls for foreign aid reductions this week. Guatemala and Honduras are two of only eight countries that voted with the U.S. on the resolution regarding the status of Jerusalem.

Cutting aid to them would undermine another established use of aid as a policy tool: Rewarding countries that vote with the U.S. on difficult UN resolutions. If President Trump’s statements mean these two countries are “not our friends,” then our list of friends grows thin indeed.

Sarah Bermeo is assistant professor of public policy and political science, and faculty affiliate of the Duke Center for International Development at Duke University. She is author of “Targeted Development: Industrialized Country Strategy in a Globalizing World

Tags Donald Trump Rex Tillerson

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