There are lots of good reasons to advocate aid to the developing world, but one that is sometimes overlooked is the direct connection between development and our national security.
Poverty, disease and a lack of opportunity create a fertile breeding ground for extremist ideologies. Once they become a national security threat, they become horrendously expensive to contain. Sometimes, we can’t contain them at all.
Consider Afghanistan, where we are now in our ninth year of a war that has resulted in a thousand U.S. combat deaths and costs taxpayers $140 billion a year.
On the eve of U.S. military intervention, Afghanistan had a per capita gross domestic product of about $800. Due to virtually non-existent sanitation and basic health care, infant mortality was 165 per thousand births and the average life expectancy was just over 42 years. Nearly half of adult males and 79 percent of adult females were illiterate.
The argument is not that developmental aid could have prevented the Taliban from taking over or giving sanctuary to Al Qaeda; it might not have. The point is that failed states like Afghanistan are natural incubators for threats to our national security.
Small and smart investments can make a huge difference. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 14 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Yet medications for people living with HIV/AIDS now cost as little as 40 cents a day. President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief put more than 2.4 million people on lifesaving medicines. Children with parents are far less likely to become child soldiers. Between 1999 and 2007, some 42 million children in sub-Saharan Africa went to school for the first time after governments used debt cancellation and increased development assistance to eliminate school fees. Children who are in school are also far less likely to become child soldiers. And countries whose children have parents and are going to school are far less likely to become the next Afghanistan.
Are we doing enough? In 1970, the world’s rich countries agreed to spend 0.7 percent of their annual gross national incomes on international development aid. The U.S. has never met this target, and has almost always spent a smaller percentage of its gross national income than any other industrialized nation. In 2009, we spent only 0.2 percent of GNI — a mere 1.5 percent of the federal budget.
President Obama wants to double foreign assistance by 2015, which would still leave us well below our 40-year-old pledge. The first installment was a $4 billion increase in 2011, but in April the Senate Budget Committee cut this modest request from the federal budget.
Appealing to Senate leaders on May 21, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that "a $4 billion decrement in State and USAID budgets will have a negative impact in ongoing U.S. military efforts, leading to higher costs through missed diplomatic and developmental needs and opportunities." In a handwritten coda, he added, "The more significant the cuts, the longer military operations will take and the more and more lives are at risk!"
There is something every reader can do. Join the more than 7,000 Hawaii residents who have become supporters of ONE. Co-founded by U2’s lead singer, Bono, ONE is a worldwide, nonpartisan campaign backed by more than 2 million people committed to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease. Join ONE online at www.one.org and sign its petition to Hawaii’s representatives and senators asking them to restore the president’s foreign aid budget.
It’s a matter of national security.