US foreign aid abandons moral cover amid rescission struggle

By Song Wei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/1 19:38:40

Trump’s plan to cut foreign aid draws fierce opposition from Democrats and Republicans

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

US President Donald Trump's recent plan to freeze $4 billion in foreign aid incited broad bipartisan backlash. The funding is actually unobligated, expiring balances from fiscal year 2018, and is supposed to go to the US Agency for International Development, UN peacekeeping activities, and UN humanitarian programs.

Trump's explanation for the proposed freezing is clear: funding for foreign aid is being spent wastefully. "We give billions and billions of dollars to countries that don't like us, and I've been cutting that a lot," Trump said. Yet, Trump eventually had to drop the plan to cut foreign aid, not because the moral value of aid has overcome utilitarian political consideration, but because the plan touched the bottom line of Congress. 

The US Constitution gives Congress the power to manage the spending of the federal government, which doesn't allow for administrative intervention. Eliot Engel, New York Representative and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that, "This administration's contempt for Congress is astounding ... When Congress decides how much we can spend on foreign assistance, it isn't a suggestion. It's the law, backed up by the Constitution."

What's even more thought-provoking from the incident is that Congress' debate on Trump's foreign aid cuts mainly focused on whether foreign assistance can safeguard US national interests, with no mention of its pledge about development concepts in the Foreign Assistance Act. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "We've got to make sure we are using [the funding] in ways that are effective; that American interests are represented in the way we spend that money." Meanwhile, the opposition believed that cutting foreign aid would seriously harm the US' global interests. Nita Lowey, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, called the idea of cutting foreign aid "wrong-headed," noting that, "There's bipartisan, widespread understanding that these funds are essential for US global leadership and protecting the security of the American people." Republican and Democratic lawmakers sent a joint letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), writing that "These funds, which were appropriated by Congress and signed into law by the president following lengthy, bipartisan negotiations, are essential to promoting US global leadership and protecting the security of the American people." Thus, it seems that it has become the consensus among US politicians that foreign aid is meant to protect its own interests, while the development purpose of foreign aid has been completely ignored.

The attitude of the American people toward foreign aid is even more straightforward. Growing nationalism and populism are activating American isolationism. American people are calling on the government to use taxes for their own country rather than to help other countries. Seeing the world from a competitive perspective, they question how aiding people in other countries helps them. 

Liz Schrayer, CEO of the nonprofit US Global Leadership Coalition, called the aid-cut plan "a reckless and irresponsible move," and said "OMB appears set on taking a sledgehammer to one of the most minuscule parts of the entire federal budget that would significantly damage America's security and economic interests."

In fact, even at the establishment of foreign aid programs, the US already set the fundamental goal of achieving political purposes. American theorists have held many discussions in this regard. For example, realists believe that foreign aid is a tool, essentially a means of achieving political goals by using bribery. Even humanitarian assistance is no exception. Institutionalists claim that, although multilateral aid emphasizes common interests over national interests, specific capital investment still cannot rid itself of geopolitical influence. Constructivists believe that even though aid donors claim that targets like promoting poverty reduction and sustainable development are value-neutral, assistance measures can only be neutral when the recipient country has neither geopolitical value nor economic value to the donor country. They also believe that it is only in these circumstances that expected aid effects can be achieved. The essential utilitarianist nature of these beliefs makes it hard for aid to facilitate the development of the developing countries.

With this outlook, US aid cannot help resolve development issues like addressing climate change, promoting gender equality, and focusing on youth employment. Developing countries can only rely on mutual cooperation among similar countries to achieve their own development. With the rise of protectionism and unilateralism, US foreign aid has abandoned its moral cover, with no more emphasis on the international consensus reached at the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Then, promoting the South-South cooperation to achieve mutual benefit, uniting and striving is the only choice and the only way out for developing countries.

The author is an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation under the Ministry of Commerce.
Newspaper headline: Trump’s plan to cut foreign aid draws fierce opposition from Democrats and Republicans


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