January 30, 2006

The United States must give foreign aid

Much of the discussion on foreign development aid today centers on whether it reaches the people who need it most. Is the assistance actually getting to the intended recipients,or does it continually fall into the hands of corrupt dictators and warlords? Such a question concerns its effectiveness, and implicitly calls for innovation and creative thinking on how best to implement foreign aid policies or improve the quality of the aid itself.

In a recent article entitled “The United States Government Should Not Give Foreign Aid,” however, Eric Blaschke challenges the very theory that foreign aid is good for the donor country. Historical and contemporary writing on this topic points to two main reasons to the contrary: national self-interest and moral duty. Simply stated, the national economic interest argument usually goes like this: Promoting economic liberalization by financially rewarding developing countries expands demand for goods and services by recipient countries in the commercial market, serving the donor’s economic interest. Similarly, the theory follows that alleviating poverty and assisting progress toward liberal democracy and respect for the rule of law in these countries serves America’s political interest, especially given the nation’s more recent foreign policy objective of undermining the proliferation of terrorism. America does not, for these reasons, give foreign aid solely out of guilt over the substantial historical injustices the Western world has perpetrated on the developing world. Though I believe it is a necessary condition for aid, compensation for earlier political and economic exploitation by this nation is not sufficient to inform specific policies that determine how much aid to give, who should receive it, whether it should be conditional or not, and what purpose it should ultimately serve.

Other reasons for giving aid aside, the moral reasons alone are enough. Blaschke seems to think this fundamental aspect of foreign aid does not warrant any consideration. Not to be polemic, but any discussion about foreign aid that leaves aside its moral underpinnings ignores a crucial reason why people make a case for it at all. If one believes the moral case for aid to be sound, then fulfilling obligations to more disadvantaged parts of the world is, after all, in the national interest.

For my part, I believe we have such a responsibility not merely as a matter of moral imperative, but because giving up in the face of past failings is not part of America’s national character. Blaschke correctly states that “aid policies require drastic reform,” but the consequence of this point should not be abandoning the entire practice. To encourage a dialogue on the failings and inadequacies of foreign aid delivered by the United States and other more economically developed nations is both legitimate and necessary. But to make a blanket assertion that foreign aid should be abandoned simply because government has not been able to deliver aid effectively is misguided. What’s more, it does a disservice to this country’s history of foreign aid policies. If America hasn’t found the best way to administer aid, progress demands that it keeps trying.

When President Harry Truman announced his Point Four program in his 1949 inaugural address, he captured in powerful rhetoric why the U.S. must have a leading role in alleviating poverty and hunger for those living in less fortunate parts of the world: “For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people…Our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens…Democracy alone can supply the vitalizing force to stir the peoples of the world into triumphant action, not only against their human oppressors, but also against their ancient enemies—hunger, misery, and despair.”

Though Truman’s words were driven by the Cold War mentality of the era, the argument that fostering sustainable economic development and encouraging democracy abroad are both in America’s national interest and vital to its role as a moral leader in the world carries significant force to this day. America can and should recommit itself to this long-standing pledge. Sealing itself off from the rest of the global community has never been this country’s expected disposition (just ask our current president). America lives in an interdependent world. Reasserting leadership on foreign aid is a good place to begin acting like it.