Op-Ed: Who Will Save U.S. Foreign Aid?

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Written by Roger Cochetti

The American foreign aid program is under the greatest scrutiny that it’s been under since Vietnam, as the President proposes sweeping changes to, and reductions in, both bilateral and multilateral foreign aid.  The Congressional foreign aid debate promises to be as divisive as anything currently before the Congress; and it will turn to a very large extent on how the foreign aid’s four key constituencies weigh in.

For almost ten years, before I made a career switch to the technology industry, I worked nearly full time to develop and expand U.S. public support for foreign aid, culminating in my serving as the senior federal official responsible for public affairs for both bilateral and multilateral foreign aid. Although that was a while ago, I learned a lot then about what it takes to get organized public, and thus Congressional, support for foreign aid and what can go wrong. Here’s what I learned.

The modern foreign aid program has its origins in the 1948 Marshall Plan and the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. Both were offspring of the Cold War, since foreign aid was considered a primary means to support pro-American factions, encourage market economies, and strengthen friendly economies. Its main justification was that it deterred people—first in Europe and later in developing countries—from both the attraction of Communism and the influence of the Soviet Union. As a matter of American political support, however, foreign aid has rested on four constituencies:

  1. Political/military interests, found mostly in the intelligence community, the State and Defense Departments, security-oriented commentators/media/ think tanks and security-oriented academia.
  2. Humanitarian interests, found mostly in religious, ethnic, and civic groups.
  3. Commercial interests, found mostly in businesses and business groups that have investments in or trade with the countries that receive foreign aid.
  4. The agencies, contractors, and subcontractors that actually manage and administer foreign aid, most of whose employees are highly educated and politically literate.

Think of political support for foreign aid as resting on a four-legged stool that depends on each constituency.

President Trump has proposed important changes and these will test the depth of interest of each of these constituencies. Among these are a restructuring of bilateral aid so that it essentially falls under the State Department, the phase-out of several smaller bilateral aid programs, the elimination programs for over 20 countries and very substantial reductions in funding for both bilateral aid and U.S. contributions to multilateral aid agencies. Whether these proposals are approved in Congress will turn in part on whether and how these constituencies lobby the Hill.

With the exception of the agencies, contractors, subcontractors, and employees, for whom foreign assistance is their mainstay, the other three constituencies have a wide range of budgetary and policy priorities, of which foreign aid is just one. While signing a “group statement” is important, it’s pretty easy. The real test, as the budgetary and funding processes force tradeoffs both within the international affairs function and between the international affairs function and other federal budgetary functions, comes when politically organized groups need to decide how hard to actually push for foreign aid.

The attitude of the general public doesn’t help. For many Americans, foreign aid is at best confusing and at worst a waste of money. Most Americans believe that the United States spends too much on foreign aid (although humanitarian aid always scores better in public opinion than “foreign aid”) and most think the United States spends far more on foreign aid than it actually does.

Many Members of Congress, although far from a majority, support foreign aid as a matter of conviction. They do so because of their personal experience in the military, the Peace Corps, education, charity, business, religious or ethnic groups; or because of the influence of others close to them with similar experience. But rarely does this support from conviction translate into majorities.

This background of modest public support and limited Congressional support from personal conviction makes the role of the foreign aid constituencies more important than is the case for political constituencies for most other federal programs. All eyes will be on the four foreign aid constituencies as this drama unfolds.

About the author: Roger Cochetti is an author and advisor in the technology sector, where he served as a senior executive with COMSAT, IBM, Network Solutions, VeriSign and CompTIA, prior to which he was Assistant Director for Legislative & Public Affairs of the U.S. International Development Cooperation Agency.