Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On "taking care of our own first".

Lately I have been seeing chain posts from some of my FaceBook acquaintances questioning why we send billions to "foreign" countries when we have poor, sick, starving people in "our own" countries.

Of course, individuals are free to contribute towards whatever (legal) cause takes their fancy, so I assume the issue under debate here is governmental aid contributions.

Chart courtesy of Ezra Klein (h/t @viewfromthecave and @laurenist)

Interestingly, in a new World Opinion Poll, 848 Americans guessed, on average, that the US spends 25% of the budget on foreign aid, but those polled felt that the figure should be about 10% i.e. a random sample of American citizens thought we ought to spend about 10% of the federal budget on foreign aid.

In fact, the U.S. government spends less than half of one percent (about $18b) of the federal budget on "international development and humanitarian assistance. And here's a nice little graphic that shows the same thing:

So, I'm going to assume that the people who feel that we spend too much on "foreign" aid were unaware of how much we actually do spend. As a side note, in 1970 the US and other rich countries of the OECD agreed at the United Nations (Resolution 2626) to give 0.7% of their GNP as aid to the developing countries. Forty years later, most have never come close to that figure.
When I first read the FaceBook diatribes, I responded by posting graphics detailing conditions endured by those in the developing world (e.g. no access to clean water, sanitation). My reasoning was that people who subscribe to this isolationist philosophy do so because they are unaware of how much we actually spend, and also:
Perhaps there are other reasons to send aid abroad. The most obvious ephemeral one is "it's the right thing to do" - Sarah Boseley writes about Rajiv Shah's opinion here. And there are others very nicely laid out by Jonathan Glennie blogging in the Guardian.

For the June 2002 G8 summit, a briefing was prepared by Action for Southern Africa and the World Development Movement, looking at:
"the legacy of colonialism, the support of the G8 for repressive regimes in the Cold War, the creation of the debt trap, the massive failure of Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed by the IMF and World Bank and the deeply unfair rules on international trade. The role of the G8 in creating the conditions for Africa’s crisis cannot be denied. Its overriding responsibility must be to put its own house in order, and to end the unjust policies that are inhibiting Africa’s development."
So, perhaps a little justice might be a reason?

It has been suggested that developing nations may be the origin of, or provide safe haven for terrorists and their organizations. Assisting those countries, it has been argued, could make them less hospitable to such persons/organizations. However,
"we know little about the links between ... poverty and terrorism (the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks were neither poor nor uneducated). [Also,] not all poor countries have problems with terrorism, nor do their governments provide safe haven for terrorists."
- Can Foreign Aid Help Stop Terrorism? - Carol Graham

Having said that, in Foreign Policy magazine’s annual Failed States Index, the top three, Somalia, Chad, and Sudan, are all humanitarian catastrophes. Their instability has enabled powerful militant organizations to establish themselves and threaten both local institutions and Western ones. A proper investment in foreign aid could obviate more expensive Western intervention, and be beneficial in the long-term..

[UpdateWriting in The New Republic, Thomas Carothers suggests that the GOP's current policy on slashing foreign aid is "penny-wise pound-foolish". He points to the British Conservative government's philosophy that not only is continuing (or perhaps increasing) foreign aid "the right thing to do", but that "aid is a crucial tool for building good will, creating a rich cross-border web of organizational and personal ties, and shaping young minds" - and the same point from the American perspective here.]

That some deserve help more than others is patently obvious. My need for a Maserati is immeasurably less than a homeless woman's need for warmth this winter. However, food, water, and shelter trump everything else. Cold, starving people are cold starving people no matter their country. So how do we decide which cold starving people to help? Why help the needy family in your hometown before the one in Barekuma? Is it familiarity with the recipient? Do yo believe they would be more productive citizens than that family in Barekuma?

I guess the crux of this debate is, what makes someone "foreign"? Different city? State? Race? Religion?

If we start by helping "our own", at what point do we declare that "we" are all doing ok, and now we can help "foreigners". When less than 10% of our citizens live below the poverty line? When less than 10% of our citizens are malnourished? When everyone owns their own home? Perhaps a ratio of Human Development Indices ?

There is a very heated debate as to what aid actually helps, and if the funds are being spent appropriately.
"The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get three dollars to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths.… It is heart-breaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children."

Surely no-one would disagree that we must "have a climate of open debate in which we learn from past mistakes, the guilty suffer, the good are rewarded, and ... aid does start to reach the poor". Thankfully, many organizations are addressing the "corruption" issue - The Global Fund recently suspended many grants to those countries where they found evidence of misused grant money.
Moreover, impressive results ensue when good principles are followed. Yohannes and Worthington blog about Ghana's 30 years of consistent agricultural growth, and a halving of the poverty rate since 1991 thanks to "a partnership rooted in country-owned solutions, a demand for results and a commitment to transparency".

I appreciate that I am largely preaching to the converted here. However, those posts pushed a button, and I wanted to formulate my thoughts and perhaps open a dialogue with those who differ.

I look forward to reading your comments.

And if you just want to learn more about "foreign aid", Oxfam America has a nice Foreign Aid 101 Guide.