Making foreign aid a presidential prerogative

Keticia Orilius is a community health worker who found her job through a USAID program in Haiti. Photo by: David Rochkind / USAID / CC BY-NC

As the presidential candidates progress into the height of the campaign, discussions about national security are moving to the forefront.  

While the candidates are debating some of the country’s greatest national security threats — issues like the Islamic State group, cyber warfare and nuclear proliferation — I can’t help but wonder if something is missing from the conversation.

Since this presidential campaign season began, the issue of foreign aid has mostly been raised in the context of a budget line item that needs reducing. While foreign aid may not trump other national security concerns, it does offer solutions that intersect with our country’s health and security needs, and our interests in enhanced global economic prosperity.

Time and again, we’ve seen the power of foreign aid investment in developing nations. We’ve seen their gross domestic product grow and countries thrive when people are educated and healthy. Conversely, we’ve seen how individuals and societies can fall into despair in the face of disease and the absence of opportunity, playing into the hands of criminal and extremist elements.

The idea that investing in foreign aid fosters global economic and political stability isn’t a new one, but it is one that is underrated.

Across our nation, there is a growing consensus that in addition to defense, global development and diplomacy are essential components of American national security. In fact, many of the most senior military leaders have emphasized publicly that development strengthens our national interests, fighting the spread of poverty and disease — and ultimately terrorism. And it does so while accounting for just 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget. The return on that investment is exponential.

For example, take a look at what’s happening in the global fight against neglected tropical diseases.

At least 1 billion people — one-sixth of the world's population — suffer from one or more of these preventable diseases. They are still rampant in much of the developing world, causing blindness, worm infestation, severe enlargements of the legs and feet, and impairing childhood growth. The impact of these disabilities in the world's poorest countries results in billions of dollars of lost productivity.

Millions now have access to effective, low-cost treatments for NTDs. In fact, we just celebrated that a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded for the treatment of an NTD — river blindness — due to its impact and the promise it offers. Following Colombia and Ecuador, Mexico was just declared the third country worldwide to be free of river blindness, having eliminated the disease after decades of large-scale interventions. And in the first half of fiscal year 2015, more than $1.6 billion in donated medicines have been delivered to countries supported by the United States Agency for International Development’s NTD Program.

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Just recently, I was on the ground in Katosi, Uganda, where I had the opportunity to see the public health impact of foreign aid investment firsthand. Katosi, a fishing village of increasing economic importance in its district, has the potential to contribute significantly to the Ugandan economy — if residents are healthy. While there, I met families receiving their annual dose of NTD medicines thanks to a campaign supported by USAID’s ENVISION project, a global initiative that RTI International leads in collaboration with numerous stakeholders.

Thanks to these efforts, more than 39 million people in Uganda and millions more in Africa, Asia and the Americas will no longer suffer from diseases like lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), trachoma (a blinding eye infection), onchocerciasis (river blindness), schistosomiasis (bilharzia) and intestinal worms.

These results inspire hope, especially when you consider findings from the most recent Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases report: the global economy would gain $565 billion in productivity if the World Health Organization’s targets for the control and elimination of NTDs are met by 2030.

Although progress is being made, we can’t lose sight of these goals — or lose momentum in this fight.

I am convinced that as the presidential candidates continue their debates and ponder our most pressing national security concerns, they would be wise to start a meaningful conversation about foreign aid and the ever important area of global health.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Global leadership is a strategic imperative for America, not a favor we do for other countries.”

We believe that foreign aid investment is not just the right thing to do for the billions of people living in extreme poverty; it’s a strategic investment that’s necessary to keep our nation safe.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of U.S. aid, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • E. Wayne Holden

    E. Wayne Holden became RTI International’s fourth president and chief executive officer in 2012. He is a distinguished researcher and clinical psychologist with more than 27 years of professional experience. He joined RTI as executive vice president of social and statistical sciences in 2005, overseeing the organization’s largest unit.