The front page of today’s Washington Post reads: “A case of aid gone bad in Colombia.” The article behind it catalogues a litany of abuses of American resources during “[Colombia's] U.S.-funded counterinsurgency campaign against a Marxist rebel group — and the civilian and military coordination behind it.”
As I’ve REPEATEDLY noted, foreign aid spending is amongst the least popular things that our government does. When budgets get tight (but really, almost all the time, if we believe the polls), Americans demand that leaders cut foreign aid. Why?
Part of the problem is headlines (and articles) like the Post‘s. When we equate “Foreign Aid” with “Failed Military Aid/Counterinsurgency Strategies,” it’s easy to dismiss the whole notion as pointless. It’s not fair, nor is it true. You don’t need to be a policy wonk, Beltway insider, or budding academic to understand that it’s one thing to hand out machine guns and counterinsurgency training to the Colombian military (or the Afghan military, etc) and quite another to hand out food to drought-plagued/famine-plagued African children. Buying fighter jets for regional allies isn’t quite the same as programs to keep girls in school and out of marriage until they’re adults.
These are two different things, but for a variety of reasons, media coverage calls them both “aid.” First of all, the Foreign Aid budget is part of the broader International Affairs account. The latter includes a much broader array of resources from military aid to the State Department, etc. Second, proponents of American Foreign Aid budgets (including yours truly) have been trying to protect their funding by linking it to security questions. As a very smart Thought News reader (who asked to remain anonymous) put it:
For the past several years, the international development community has been trying, in one form or another, to equate development with defense. The argument usually goes something like this: Spending money on development now will decrease spending money on defense later. It is cheaper to reduce poverty and improve the democracy and economy of a country now than to have a society crumble and be forced to send in troops.
The argument is true, of course—effective aid helps to hold down military costs—but it’s true that linking the two opens foreign aid to the kinds of confusion that the Post‘s article perpetuates. Even if human dignity is inextricably linked to human security, it’s not the case that corruption troubles implicit in securing one also indict the other. It’s also worth noting (h/t again to the reader just quoted) that linking foreign aid to security spending has inadvertently bundled it into a dangerous position vis-à-vis the debt ceiling deal. The GOP managed to get USAID’s international development funding lumped with military budgets for the purpose of automatic triggers—despite the fact that the Department of Defense’s daily budget is equivalent to USAID’s annual budget. They’re naturally fiscal cousins, right? Right?!?