CNN The Real Value of Foreign Aid

CNN )   "Why should we care?" "Let them take care of their own problems." "We have enough problems in our own backyard!"

Those are sentiments echoed on all sides of the political divide when the public is asked about spending their tax dollars on foreign aid. As of April 2017, 73% of respondents in an ongoing pollseek a decrease in funding. 

At the State Department, USAID and the development community, there has been considerable concern about major cuts to that International Affairs Budget, already less than 1% of our entire federal expenditure. The recently leaked State Department budget suggests how the new administration seeks to cut direct foreign aid. 

There are a lot of misconceptions about the value of foreign aid, at times seen as some form of naïve humanitarianism. But modern foreign aid is not charity. It is strategic and an investment in a stronger America abroad.

For example, South Korea was provided strategic foreign aid after the ceasefire on the Korean peninsula in 1953, creating one of our most important allies and our 6th-largest trading partner. The return has been exponentially higher than the investment. 

By stabilizing vulnerable communities, foreign aid strengthens our national security. It helps combat contributors to instability, which create circumstances non-state actors happily exploit to further their agenda. There are various non-state groups around the world with several and differing objectives. But groups our government has designated as terrorist organizations do not respect international human rights and use violence and fear to impose their political, ideological, and religious beliefs to gain power and legitimize their sovereignty. 


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Security and power vacuums exist in fragile regions that allow for human rights violations. Illicit trafficking of people, arms and drugs provide safe havens for terrorists and displace innocent people, creating refugees and IDPs (internally displaced people).

Strategic aid promotes economic prosperity while bolstering self-reliance and opening markets and trading opportunities to the United States. The impacted population is better able to contribute as members of local and global society, generating jobs, fueling market economies, holding governments accountable and serving as first responders to their own needs. 

So at a cost of less than 1% of our entire federal budget, foreign aid is a bargain, given its ability to bolster our national security. 

America has benefited from its leadership in the world, and in an increasingly interconnected society, we should continue to make investments in our shared future. An unstable world is not good for the United States. "America First" must not be a zero-sum strategy. 

Extreme poverty in regions across the world may not seem relevant, given the challenges we face domestically, but those areas of vulnerability give terrorists potential ways to disrupt our national security and way of life. 

Scarce resources, inequality, exclusion from participation in civil society, ineffective governance, weak institutions and sectarian divides create leadership and security vacuums that are quickly filled by non-state actors, such as violent extremist groups. Radicals influence these vulnerable populations by tapping into the sentiments of hopelessness, disenfranchisement and fear. This is precisely why development initiatives are critical in the most violent, impoverished and susceptible places in the world. 

A real cost calculus actually shows that cutting funds for resilience-building solutions would inevitably sacrifice more with blood, through military intervention, when a conflict hits a boiling point; or toward emergency and disaster response when there are food shortages, refugee influxes, and health epidemics.

According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, prioritizing development would be 60 times less expensive than military intervention and the subsequent assistance required for helping nations rebuild in the aftermath.

Military leaders are the first to advocate for proactive and coordinated development initiatives to prevent conflict and war, knowing that our men and women in uniform pay the highest cost in war. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately." 

The US Global Leadership Coalition sent a powerful letter to the White House that was signed by 121 three- and four-star military leaders advocating for development to remain a critical component of our national security strategy. But even that level of endorsement may not be enough. 

Although it's supported and sensible, this is an understandably difficult strategy to sell because successful prevention does not attract popular attention. There are no videos and photos when a crisis is averted. There are no "hero" awards and higher approval ratings. And we live in an age of instant gratification where mere activity is mistaken for progress. 

Recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke to an audience at the State Department to prepare people for the dramatic cuts to major programs and jobs in the fiscal year 2018 budget. He elucidated that the administration's goals are aimed at securing our national security and economic interests. 

That insight into how the "America First" foreign policy will be executed gives us another lens through which to view the proposed budget. What's interesting is that some of the proposed cuts reallocate funding from aid to the Economic Support Fund (ESF), which was created to be a flexible way to support nations through development initiatives that are of strategic importance to our national security interests. This presents a unique opportunity to make foreign aid a more effective tool of foreign policy.

But if these programs are not coordinated with defense and diplomatic action, and if they fail to address the root causes of instability, using this type of aid as a negotiating tool in foreign policy will only garner temporary transactional alliances -- with short-term gains and long-term, unintended consequences. 

So how do we address these issues? We structure the ESF grants so that initiatives utilize modern tools such as predictive modeling and data and analytics combined with the human element of local insight to identify root vulnerabilities. We build in longer-term indicators and make prevention the principal objective. In other words, we need to stop treating the symptoms and start addressing the disease. 

Wasted funding, handouts and failed Band-Aid solutions-in-a-box have burned out many development practitioners who are ready to change the reactive and competitive norms of the archaic aid system.

Today's funding challenges carry an opportunity to start the changes that practitioners have wanted for decades. 

Yes, we must win the wars we engage in and continue to have the strongest military in the world. But we cannot continue operating in civilian/military silos or relying on hard power alone.

But for this to work, prevention must be the objective key part of our national security strategy. Then, and only then, will aid no longer be seen as charity -- but as an essential, modern tool of US national security, and an investment in our economic prosperity.

Originally published HERE on CNN

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mina Chang is Chief Executive Officer of Linking the World, a non-governmental organization that uses research tools to bridge the gap between practitioners and policy-makers, and to curate public conversation about national security. Mina is an International Security Fellow for New America. Follow her on Twitter @MinaChang.

Mina Chang