Members of USAID’s PREDICT program at work in Ratchaburi, Thailand. Photo by: Richard Nyberg / USAID / CC BY-NC

COVID-19 has laid bare a stark reality: We cannot wait until an infectious disease reaches our shores to take action. The world’s richest nation needs to invest in preventive measures and cooperate with others to detect and mitigate the impact of dangerous viruses and other transnational threats.

We have done this effectively in the recent past. Working with the World Health Organization and other international partners, the United States successfully fought past coronaviruses such as SARS and H1N1 — and halted the spread of Ebola in Africa.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama administration’s Global Health Security Agenda and USAID’s PREDICT programs were specifically designed to detect the transfer of pathogens from animals to people — and to prevent epidemics from becoming pandemics. The current President Donald Trump administration’s decision to weaken these programs, even proposing to cut their budget by almost 30%, has had disastrous consequences.

Fortunately, a bipartisan coalition in Congress rejected the proposed cuts. It is worth noting that some of the most ardent proponents of development have been former senior military officers.

This raises a crucial point about the value of development funding: Such investments serve our national security in the short term while simultaneously advancing our national interests over the long run. They foster a more peaceful and prosperous world — and a more democratic one was well.

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That is why the U.S. has traditionally been a global leader in promoting development cooperation, and it is why Congress recently adopted the Global Fragility Act, the first-ever strategy to tackle the underlying threats to nations on the brink of economic or social collapse.

These programs have an impressive track record. They have helped cut extreme poverty in half globally; saved millions of lives by eradicating diseases like smallpox and polio; and prevented pandemics, famine, and conflict.

There is no way to know just how many American lives have been saved from averted epidemics and unfought wars. There is no reliable way to count the dollars we have saved.

What we do know, is that these programs often represent the primary connection that people in other nations have with the U.S. They are a reflection of our national values and generosity.

Yet there is more to development cooperation than generosity. If an impoverished society becomes a source of infectious disease, or is unable to manage the impacts of climate change, or control violent criminal activity, forcing innocent victims to become refugees, then the prevention of these things becomes a vital interest.

We raise armies not just to fight wars, but also to deter those who would threaten us. We practice statecraft and conduct diplomacy to build alliances, preserve our international standing, find common ground — even with adversaries — and pursue our national interests. And we partner with others in development cooperation to foster peace and prosperity, and to prevent the kinds of crises we are now facing.

Over the years, the U.S has led the way in forging a global consensus in favor of cooperation and burden sharing in international development. This consensus was on clear display in 2015, when 194 countries voted to adopt the landmark Sustainable Development Goals.

Sadly, development assistance has become a transactional tool to be granted or denied at the whim of Trump. By contrast, presidential candidate Joe Biden is committed to restoring American leadership in this vital field.

The platform that Biden wholeheartedly endorsed at the Democratic National Convention celebrates the “extraordinary return on [the U.S.] investment in the prevention and alleviation of poverty, hunger, disease, and conflict … and the opening of global markets for American business and exports to thrive.”

It should not have taken a pandemic to remind us of the value of smart investments in global health and development. If we fail to learn from this terrible moment in history, we may well lose an opportunity to protect future generations at home and abroad from the consequences of global crises. It is well past time to restore the development programs that enable us to prevent transnational threats.

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

About the authors

  • J. Brian Atwood

    J. Brian Atwood is a former USAID administrator in the Clinton administration and chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee in the Obama Administration. He is currently a visiting professor for international studies and public affairs at Brown University’s Thomas Watson Institute for International Studies, and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
  • Paula Garcia Tufro

    Paula Garcia Tufro is a project director at the U.S. Institute of Peace where she leads the strategic direction and execution of USIP’s Interorganizational Global Forum, focused on great power competition in the context of state fragility in Venezuela. Prior to joining USIP, she served as the deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council and previously served in the Obama administration for eight years and she is the former director for Development and Democracy at the National Security Council.