Opinion: 'America First' doesn't work in foreign aid

A poster at a rally. Photo by: A. Shaker / Voice of America

For all the disagreement about the budget for foreign aid, there is surprisingly broad consensus across the political spectrum that we must justify such assistance to Congress and the American people as being in the direct national interests of the United States. But this bipartisan consensus is mostly wrong. Indeed, it is counterproductive to our real interests and objectives.

President Trump’s “America First” budget and rhetoric place little priority on foreign assistance. The Trump administration argues that foreign engagement can only be justified to the extent it furthers narrowly defined American national interests. In announcing last week the nomination of Mark Green to be the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “Mark will help us prioritize where America's future development investments will be spent so that we can ensure every tax dollar advances our country's security and prosperity.” But President Obama’s rhetoric was remarkably consistent with this argument. As Obama put in his remarks at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013, for example, “foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security. And it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.” Likewise, the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition — an influential network of businesses, NGOs, faith leaders, foreign policy experts and others — argues for a strong international affairs budget largely for “protecting national security” and “building economic prosperity,” including by “creating American jobs” and “expanding exports.”

For foreign assistance to be ultimately effective, though, it is critically important to explain why it furthers our values, and to articulate more or less altruistic motives. While development assistance efforts are undoubtedly in our country’s (long-term) national interest in building a more peaceful, stable world, it is hard to build support for such efforts in targeted countries if the principal stated rationale is that they advance the short-term national security, counterterrorism or economic interests of the U.S. To the extent public officials, political and civic leaders, and people overseas believe that we are providing such assistance to help ourselves rather than to help them, they have little incentive to listen to our advice, to agree with our priorities, or to view the exchange as anything other than a mutually self-serving transaction. This is not a recipe for real political or institutional reform, or effective, sustainable development. But if foreign civic and political leaders believe that such assistance can further their national interests and is genuinely intended to help them build more inclusive, more prosperous, more successful societies, they are more likely to take ownership of the reforms and priorities we advocate, greatly increasing the chances of genuine change. Building trust in our motives is essential to the effectiveness of our assistance.

The U.S. can and must simultaneously pursue our own national interests and support the legitimate interests of aid-recipient countries in their own development. It is in our long-term interests that the latter not be sacrificed to the former. Thus, for example, while some U.S. policymakers might believe that U.S. national security interests in military cooperation in Afghanistan outweigh inherently difficult efforts to ensure governmental accountability, fighting corruption and ensuring accountability are essential to successful development, which is in the interests of both countries. In Central America, although the U.S. has legitimate interests in working with governments to prevent illegal immigration and stop the drug trade, it should also focus on long-term economic development and political reforms to address crime, build accountability, and make people’s lives better, to the ultimate benefit of people both in the U.S. and the region. In Egypt, in an effort to encourage counterterrorism cooperation and shore up the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, U.S. policymakers have effectively looked the other way as the authoritarian government of President Sisi has cracked down on even peaceful opposition.

But while the fight against terrorism and the success of the peace agreement are critically important U.S. policy goals, it is in American as well as Egyptian national interests for a country to embrace political inclusion, respect human rights and build effective, democratic institutions viewed as legitimate across the society. In Kenya, important efforts to protect international stability by preventing violence after upcoming elections, such as by mediating electoral disputes and negotiating power-sharing arrangements, should not come at the expense of ignoring anomalies and covering up potential cheating, as they have in the past; both countries have long-term interests in ensuring that those elections are genuinely democratic and fair.

To achieve the goals of an America First orientation to further the interests of Americans, we cannot sell our efforts as America First.

In each case, arguments that U.S. development programs are for our benefit rather than for theirs potentially undermine the trust necessary for our assistance to spur positive changes. We must help our development partners around the world to see how the policy and institutional changes we recommend work for them. It is harder to do that if we argue they should do those things because it will benefit us. In fact, we believe that international development will be of mutual benefit. To achieve the goals of an America First orientation to further the interests of Americans, we cannot sell our efforts as America First.

In pursuit of greater efficiency and better alignment of foreign assistance with national interests, the Trump administration has hinted that it may fold USAID into the State Department. This would be a mistake. The State Department should focus on diplomacy and protecting American national interests, such as economic and security interests. At the same time, USAID can focus on long-term development challenges, which are better explained as being in the interests of recipient countries, even as they are simultaneously in the interests of the U.S. USAID should not be part of the State Department because if short-term national interests drive international development programs, those programs are much less likely to be successful.

Development assistance must provide greater opportunities for local engagement and local ownership of objectives, theories of change, and implementation methods. To be effective — in our interests as well as theirs — we cannot not lose sight of the need to build local buy-in and to reflect local goals and priorities. Development assistance can only have an impact, and thus can only serve our long-term national interests, if it is focused on the needs and concerns of the recipients of that assistance. It is not about us; it’s about them. Such an approach is ultimately better both for them and for us.

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About the author

  • Eric Bjornlund

    Eric Bjornlund is a lawyer and is co-founder and president of Democracy International. He is also adjunct professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, where he teaches in the graduate program in democracy and governance; serves as secretary and board member of the Advancing Democratic Elections and Political Transitions consortium; and by appointment of the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development serves as a member of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid. At Democracy International, Mr. Bjornlund oversees a rapidly growing organization with more than 200 full-time, professional staff members.