U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo by: Pete Souza / White House

If you don’t believe foreign aid is a critical factor in the U.S. foreign policy calculus, recent events and headlines should make you think again.

This week, we found out that Russia is ousting the U.S. Agency for International Development. The move essentially blocks American support for pro-democracy civil society organizations and public health programs that have been in place for decades at the same time Russians are taking to the streets and President Vladimir Putin appears to be strengthening his grip on power. Russia might not be America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” but few would downplay the significance of the still-evolving and uncertain relationship between the two countries. It’s probably not well-known that targeted aid has been a key mechanism to help achieve U.S. interests in Russia.

A closer look at last week’s violent protests across the Middle East and North Africa also reveal the significance of aid in U.S. foreign policy. U.S. aid to Egypt moved center stage with reports that negotiations over the large American assistance package to Egypt were put on hold and aid flows could be suspended. The death of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya was all the more shocking because the diplomat likely spent many of his final days working with the Libyan government to determine how the United States can best facilitate reconstruction and development of that war-torn country. Further, while the United States steers clear of overt military engagement in Syria, the Obama administration has turned to humanitarian assistance, providing $21 million in new funding to the World Food Program’s operations there.

“The incidents of the past week highlight how important our work is. The United States must and will remain strongly engaged in the world,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “The United States must be a force for peace and progress. That is worth striving and sacrificing for and nothing that happened last week changes that fundamental fact.”

In the aftermath of the anti-American hostilities, there are now questions over how Congress will digest the $800 million MENA fund included in the Obama administration’s proposed budget for 2013. Additionally, a White House Office of Management and Budget report last week estimates that USAID could lose $110 million from its operating budget at the end of the year due to mandatory budget cuts unless Congress agrees on a way to avoid them.

Already we know that many Americans are skeptical of foreign aid, believing the money is often wasted and would be better spent at home. Others dismiss foreign aid because it comprises such a small fraction of the enormous U.S. budget. These are not outlandish positions. Yet if recent events and headlines teach us anything it’s that aid is a vital and potentially potent foreign policy tool and one that should be carefully deliberated by U.S. government leaders. After so many tough years of war and little tolerance for more military boots on the ground, targeted aid and smart development programming might be America’s most realistic front-line strategy.

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About the author

  • Pete Troilo

    Former director of global advisory and analysis, Pete managed all Devex research and analysis operations worldwide and monitors key trends in the global development business. Prior to joining Devex, Pete was a political and security risk consultant with a focus on Southeast Asia. He has also advised the U.S. government on foreign policy and led projects for the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corp. He still consults for Devex on a project basis.