Last week we attended a Books For Africa reception in Washington, D.C., with ambassadors from eight African countries and a number of Americans who do non-profit work in Africa. The question that frequently got asked was: “Why is the U.S., the richest country in the world, reducing its development assistance to the poorest countries?” It is difficult to come up with a good answer to that question.
As members of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition Minnesota Advisory Board, we join the growing chorus of diplomats (both American and international), generals and others who are asking the Trump administration and Congress not to slash the budgets for the State Department and the Agency for International Development (USAID).
We work in the international nonprofit sector, and like many other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) based in the Twin Cities and around the country we know firsthand the value of diplomacy and foreign aid. These organizations promote education, human rights, health care, child nutrition and economic development. Most of these NGOs are privately funded, demonstrating the value average Americans place on this important international work.
Minnesotans and U.S. citizens in general are strong supporters of global engagement. Books For Africa (BFA), for example, through the donations and financial support of people across the country, has sent 38 million books to students in 49 African countries since 1988. Such work, like that of other NGOs, leads to a more educated society, which in turn leads to the development of democracy and the rule of law. A more stable and educated society means more economic development, less poverty, better health and greater opportunity, all factors that counter radical violence, often more effectively and far less costly than spending on more on military weapons.
The Trump budget plan
The Trump administration wants to slash spending for the State Department and USAID by nearly 30 percent while adding $54 billion to the Defense Department budget. (Foreign aid is about 1 percent of our overall budget vs. 15 percent for defense.) We already spend more on defense than the next seven countries combined. We see no need for such an increase, particularly at the expense of our diplomatic and aid efforts. In truth, international development spending is complementary to defense spending and will, in fact, increase our national security more than the proposed increases in defense spending.
Investments in global development are good for the United States because we want and need a strong global economy and a more secure world. Funding for diplomacy and development helps this country because in an interconnected world, economic and social advances around the globe benefit all of us.
NGOs and foreign aid, by addressing health care, poverty and lack of education, solve problems and create a more positive image of the U.S. They represent citizen-to-citizen diplomacy at its best. Likewise, groups like Books For Africa and other nonprofits work closely with diaspora groups in Minnesota and around the country. These groups then show their friends and families back home that the West cares about them and that friendship with the West brings benefits.
The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition is coordinating opposition to the proposed State Department and foreign aid cuts.
“It became clear that our message is getting through and that support is strong — from the Senate Majority Leader to the House Minority Leader, along with a new bipartisan Congressional letter,” wrote Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the coalition.
Don’t slash thoughtlessly
We welcome efficiency in all federal funding. If the administration and Congress are concerned about whether specific foreign aid and United Nations expenditures are efficient, then let’s look at that issue and reallocate those funds to other, more efficient international development programs. Certainly there are plenty of very efficient and successful international development programs being run on a shoestring. But let’s not slash spending on international aid programming across the board thoughtlessly.
The combination of our NGOs and diplomatic/foreign aid budgets are a powerful force for good in the world. They represent the best of American values.
Patrick Plonski is executive director of St. Paul-based Books For Africa. Tom Gitaa, a native of Kenya, is the publisher of the African community newspaper Mshale and a board member of Books For Africa.
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