How funding foreign aid could become a political winner

Barack Obama campaigning in Chicago in 2008. Could future candidates campaign on a platform of funding foreign aid?

Barack Obama campaigning in Chicago in 2008. Could future candidates campaign on a platform of funding foreign aid?

Guest post by NPR’s Matt Thompson.

The big story of the week is the fallout from the news that rich countries aren’t going to meet the Global Fund’s baseline requests for funding over the next three years. So it’s worth thinking about the political realities this reflects, and how activists might change those realities, at least in the U.S.

Conventional wisdom dictates that foreign aid is a political loser. Polls routinely remind us how much Americans want to shrink the (less-than one percent) sliver of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid. But I’ve seen numerous developments over the past few weeks that suggest that one could make a strong political case for increasing our levels of foreign aid:

American views of foreign aid are more nuanced than the headlines would have you believe.

A few weeks ago, a Kaiser survey probed American perceptions of the U.S.’ role in global health. It turns out that determining support for foreign aid depends a lot on how you frame the question:

When it comes to U.S. foreign aid in general, six in 10 Americans (61%) say the U.S. spends too much, and four in 10 incorrectly think that foreign aid is one of the two biggest areas of spending in the federal budget.  In comparison, when asked about “improving health in developing countries,” 28 percent say the U.S. spends too much, while nearly two thirds say such spending is too little (23%) or about right (42%).

This is a classic political framing challenge. “Spending on foreign aid” is a cold, bureaucratic way of framing our global development efforts. “Improving health in developing countries” does a bit better. I wonder how “preventing AIDS in newborn infants” would poll. Put Frank Luntz or George Lakoff on this task, and I bet you they could articulate a way of saying “foreign aid” that was a solid home run in public opinion.

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Americans love the military, and the military now loves foreign aid.

If there’s one thing Americans cherish, it’s our military. The military has a 74% approval rating in the U.S. Even God doesn’t pull those numbers most days. The military’s so popular that even when military leaders want to cut their budget, there’s an outcry.

Well, as Elizabeth Weingarten reported in the Atlantic this week, foreign aid is now a significant military priority:

Eighty-nine percent of active duty and retired officers believe it’s crucial to emphasize development and diplomacy initiatives in addition to military strength. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed cited the importance of non-military programs, like food assistance and health, education and economic-based development plans, as “fairly important” or “very important” in “achieving the country’s national security objectives.”

Plus, as Weingarten notes, what constitutes big money in the foreign aid universe barely registers as petty cash in the defense budget. Defense Secretary Bob Gates out-and-out admitted this in an exchange with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying, “We are able to get money easier than State and AID.”

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In FY2009, U.S. defense spending was $685 billion. Spending on foreign aid amounted to $26 billion. If aid advocates can tie these two funding allocations together, so that Americans begin to hear “national security” instead of “foreign aid,” they can tap into a giant cash cow.

Foreign aid blurs typical partisan boundaries.

We often think of foreign aid as a bleeding-heart liberal thing, but President George W. Bush’s legacy belies that caricature. Bush continues to be lauded for his prodigious commitment to ending AIDS in Africa. And this commitment won him special plaudits with a constituency that President Obama has not, by and large, won over – Christian conservatives:

By 2002, […] Christian conservatives, a core component of Mr. Bush’s political base, began adopting the cause [of combating global AIDS]. Jesse Helms, the conservative Republican senator from North Carolina, declared himself ashamed that he had not done more. Bill Frist, a physician who was then a Republican senator from Tennessee, was badgering Mr. Bush about the epidemic. So was Bono, the rock star. Generic drugs were slashing the costs for treatment.

Combined with the military’s newfound interest, this suggests that a robust foreign aid agenda could appeal to Christian conservatives, defense hawks, and social justice advocates. That could be an unusual – and extraordinarily powerful – political coalition.

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