Kerry Boldly Defends Status Quo on Foreign Aid

John Kerry has only held the office of US Secretary of State for a few weeks but has already made it known that foreign aid is one of his priorities.

Kerry says he will fight to maintain the budget of USAID and make the argument for its benefits. Hillary Clinton said much the same when she first came on board, emphasizing that the Obama Administration will build upon and expand upon the government’s established leadership in many areas of foreign aid, and especially in global health.

Didn’t happen. So what might Kerry’s rhetoric mean in reality for foreign aid?

One of the first acts by the nation’s new Secretary of State was to write a letter to Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) to warn about consequences to foreign aid and diplomacy if budget cuts are enacted through sequestration.

John Kerry
Sec State John Kerry  Credit

If a deal is not reached in Congress, the State Department and USAID will see a $2.6 billion across-the-board cut in their collective budget. “Cuts of this magnitude would seriously impair our ability to execute our vital missions of national security, diplomacy and development,” writes Kerry.

He estimates that sequestration would cost global health programs $400 million and humanitarian assistance $200 million. It comes at a time when the US is providing assistance to regions that are affected by conflict and drought such as Syria, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. Kerry adds that the global health cuts will harm the efforts by USAID to realize an AIDS-free generation and eliminate preventable child deaths.

He adds further, “Such cuts undermine out efforts to shape the boarder international efforts to fight disease and hunger, invest in global health and foster more stable societies and regions.”

Prior Warnings

USAID Administrator Raj Shah delivered similar warnings in 2011, when a budget proposed in the House of Representatives included deep cuts to USAID. “We estimate, and I believe these are very conservative estimates, that H.R. 1 would lead to 70,000 kids dying,” said Shah in his testimony to the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee.

The majority of the deaths, some 30,000, would be the result of a reduced malaria control effort. The rest, estimated Shah, would come from a lack of immunizations and a rise in the number of deaths at birth. Humanitarian aid would also have been affected. The US support for 1.6 million people in Darfur would be halved as the result of the cuts, said Shah to illustrate the effect of the proposal.

Kerry Visits State

Secretary Kerry followed up his letter with a visit to the USAID offices on February 15.  He met with his new colleagues and delivered public remarks. In them he commended the staff for their accomplishments and urged them to help make the case for foreign aid to the American public. “One percent of the total of what we invest in  not spend but invest in  comes to AID. One percent,” Kerry said. He also told the story of visiting Pakistan after its earthquake where he witnessed US humanitarian assistance in action.

I was in Pakistan right at the time after the earthquake. I went up into the mountains, up near K2, flying up in the helicopters, working with the Navy, watching all the supply lines that you all helped to create and deliver. And I met children who came out of the mountains at age 12 and 13 and 14. And for the first time in their lives, they were going to school, wearing a uniform, interested in the possibilities of a future. That’s what we brought them. It was amazing.

He underscored the fact that many believe that foreign aid is a simple giveaway. Kerry continued, “This makes a difference to people’s perception of us, to their connection to us, to their willingness to link arms with us and make a difference in other tricky endeavors, whether it’s fighting terrorism or narcotics or oppression or resistance to governance.”

A New Vision for Foreign Aid?

Kerry’s remarks to both USAID and in its defense have highlighted the themes of US self-interest in its foreign aid programs and the lack of outreach to communicate this fact. Kerry struck the same tone today at the University of Virginia where he said, “Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It’s not charity.  It is an investment in a strong America and free world.”

It is not only an investment, but a cost-effective one to Kerry. “Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow,” he said. The budget does not have the strong defenders like anti-tax hawks, explained to the audience while invoking Grover Norquist.

“We don’t have millions of AARP seniors who send in their dues and rally to protect America’s investments overseas… We need to change that.  I reject the excuse that Americans just aren’t interested in what’s happening outside their immediate field of vision.”

Same Rhetoric, Any Changes?

The recent comments by Kerry are a part of a continued line by the Obama administration towards foreign aid. President Obama echoed the very same reasoning when he was asked about foreign aid spending in a 2012 Google+ Hangout.

Like Kerry and Clinton before him, Obama says that foreign aid is a very small part of the federal budget and represents an investment in American interests. The establishment of programs like Feed the Future and the failed Global Health Initiative have shown a commitment to evidenced based programming.

Raj Shah highlighted those programs as the most important when I spoke with him in September. He listed Feed the Future and USAID’s work towards child survival as areas that he believes to be vital programs. With a new Secretary of State and the budget under pressure, questions remain as to what comes next. Insiders spoke about Clinton’s interest in and control over USAID.

That is why there have been recent calls by development professionals to de-link foreign aid from military and intelligence work. While Kerry has in fact come to the defense of foreign aid, his remarks indicate a support for the status quo.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom found and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.