In a presidential campaign mostly centered on important domestic issues, the last debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will focus on foreign policy. Events in the Middle East and North Africa have rapidly elevated America’s role and leadership in global affairs to near the top of the political discourse as we approach the final weeks before the election.
After the violent attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, some in Congress sought to cut U.S. foreign-aid assistance to countries such as Libya, Egypt and Pakistan. While specific incidents in those countries and concerns about their reliability as U.S. allies have been the impetus for these proposed cuts, efforts to reduce U.S. foreign aid are part of a broader questioning of the value of this assistance, particularly at a time of economic challenges at home.
Polls have shown that a majority of Americans mistakenly believe that up to 25 percent of the federal budget goes to U.S. foreign aid. In fact, the amount is only about 1 percent and is far below that of many other industrialized countries.
Ideally, both candidates will use tonight’s debate to clear up this misunderstanding.
This modest expenditure needs to be understood as an investment delivering a substantial return for the United States. Not only does foreign aid help millions of people in desperate need to survive through critical humanitarian assistance, it strengthens national security and encourages good will toward the United States through bilateral and multilateral partnerships. It supports funding for America’s diplomatic staff and the construction, maintenance and protection of our embassies abroad.
Foreign aid bolsters regional stability and good governance, promotes global health and protects human rights.
All these functions of foreign-aid assistance and more are essential to advancing U.S. global objectives.
One area where U.S. foreign assistance is helping bring results is torture survivor rehabilitation.
Torture: a multipurpose tool of repression
Torture is a tool of repression used in over 100 countries. Torture creates a climate of fear, hopelessness and despair that can easily turn into a humanitarian crisis.
The purpose of torture is to control populations, stifle dissent, destroy emerging movements, and disrupt formation of an effective and strong civil society. It is the most effective weapon against democracy.
The ongoing human rights atrocities in Syria are a horrible reminder of the systematic use of torture, including the torture of children.
Torture has many long-term effects, but the psychological damage is often worse than the physical. Torture survivors suffering from mental health problems may find it difficult to care for themselves and their families, trust others and contribute to the places where they live.
Direct care to survivors provided abroad
The Center for Victims of Torture works in countries with large populations of highly traumatized refugees or people returning home after war. We provide direct care to torture survivors in areas of the world where few mental-health and rehabilitative resources are available. Working in refugee camps and areas where conflict has devastated entire communities, we train the local population to meet the mental-ealth needs for the long term.
Our current projects include providing counseling and community mental-health services to Somali torture survivors in the Dadaab refugee camp near the Kenya-Somalia border and to Iraqi torture survivors in Jordan.
Our international work has been supported by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, the European Union, foundations, and individuals.
Torture survivor rehabilitation is effective in helping torture survivors heal from their trauma and rebuild meaningful lives of dignity. As a result, these survivors can restore shattered lives, becoming economically self-sufficient and productive members of their society. In our own experience, follow-up assessments with survivors have consistently shown a reduction in symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Restoring civic leadership and trust
Torture survivor rehabilitation is also an important way to restore civic leadership – frequently leaders who stand for human rights and democracy – and to help communities restore trust in public institutions and the rule of law—all of which contributes to peace and long-term stability.
During my recent visit to Dadaab and Jordan, I met with survivors of torture who suffer from unimaginable acts against humanity. The survivors I met in Dadaab are aware that our work to heal the wounds of torture is made possible because of U.S. government funding.
It became clear to me that there is no better ambassador for the values Americans hold dear than the work this assistance supports.
Recipients of care do not forget U.S. help
In Jordan, despite increased tensions in the Middle East and many uncertainties about U.S. intentions, I learned that the appreciation for U.S. foreign assistance has not diminished. Torture survivors and other refugees receiving urgent care or other necessities do not easily forget who supported them in their hour of need.
Undoubtedly, we must ensure that U.S. foreign assistance is wisely spent and serves our national and international interests. However, it is shortsighted and counterproductive, even if politically popular in some quarters, to cut our meager foreign-assistance budget further.
Now that world events have moved to the center stage during this election, our political leaders need to speak out on the high return on investment U.S. foreign assistance and international development yield.
Curt Goering is the executive director of The Center for Victims of Torture, based in St. Paul.