February 25, 2003

Foreign aid fails to win friends

Most people in this country take it as a given that foreign aid must be a component of the war on terrorism. "Drain the swamps," is their rallying cry, as they reason that improving the standard of living for impoverished Muslims overseas will keep more of them from becoming terrorists. The swamp-drainers tacitly assume that economics is always the primary, if not the sole, determinant of individual behavior. Americans on both sides of the political divide hold this view. For every leftist who sees history as the struggle of the poor against the rich you have a conservative who imagines that economic growth can cure all of society's ills. Both ignore the vital role of ideology, culture, and religion in shaping behavior.

The September 11 attacks should have raised doubt that economics reign supreme. The hijackers were young men from comfortable middle class backgrounds. They had opportunities to make good money and live in Western style. Their visits to bars and strip clubs show that they were not so dogmatic as to eschew certain Western comforts. In the end, however, their hatred of America proved so great that they were willing to throw away economic opportunities, and their own lives, for the sake of an ideology.

Indeed, there is a good argument for doing nothing to alleviate poverty in the Muslim world. That so many members of Al Qaeda come from relatively affluent Saudi Arabia suggests that economic prosperity can further animate terroristic behavior. Men too busy worrying about how to feed themselves rarely have the time or energy to plan subversive activities. The history of uprisings since the French Revolution supports this claim. In almost every case where a poor people lived under absolutist repression, the ruling regime was seriously challenged only after it began to improve the people's condition. By this logic, American attempts to improve the economies of Middle Eastern countries could trigger an explosion of violent behavior.

Not only can foreign aid cause harm, it is unlikely to do any good. We send Egypt $2 billion a year, which is equal to over 2 percent of their GDP. It is ostensibly a reward for their signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979, which prompted the Saudis to cut off aid to Egypt. Our generosity has done little to promote friendly feeling. According to observers, the bulk of Egyptians reacted to Al Qaeda's attacks on us with barely disguised glee, and the country is a breeding ground for terrorists. Our support for Israel is the number one reason for this attitude, and no amount of money can change it. Egypt is not an isolated example. American charity has been greeted with suspicion and hostility when it hasn't been simply stolen by bandits and warlords.

Our government's hapless efforts to promote its interests overseas through aid mirror its equally futile attempts to eradicate poverty at home. The answer to the question "Why does the richest country in the world have so many poor people?" is that riches have nothing to do with the problem. We've sunk billions into our inner cities since the '60s to no effect. The problems there require changes in cultural and ideological mindsets, such as the restoration of the stigmas that were once attached to antisocial behavior like drug abuse. Until that happens, money will continue to have no long-term effect.

Comparing public and parochial schools in cities further undermines the primacy of economics. Statistics show that urban parochial schools consistently outperform public schools even when they have far less funding. The reason is that the parochial schools are more likely to have a well-developed sense of mission, a sound organizational structure and more accountability. Money cannot buy these things.

The sole empirical example those who support increased aid use is the Marshall Plan. They claim that American aid, in stamping out suffering and despair in postwar Western Europe, prevented communism from taking hold there. There are two problems with this conclusion. First, Western Europe was already an industrialized, modern region. The Marshall Plan did not build new economies out of whole cloth, an infinitely more difficult if not impossible task. Second, communism was not about to get any traction in Western Europe so long as the U.S. Army was there and the CIA was financing capitalist candidates in Italy and France. While the Marshall Plan was a success, it was part of a larger strategy, and it cannot be used as a universal example.

America should rely on its military and border patrol, not on foreign aid, to protect its interests. By cutting countries off and allowing them to carry on free from our interference, developing or remaining stagnant as fortune dictates, we would help alleviate the perception of America as a meddling hegemon.