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Foreign aid cuts popular in budget battle, but not much there to cut

Federal categories of spending, 2010

Federal categories of spending, 2010

As President Obama and Congress tussle over how best to cut the federal deficit many are worried about the size of their slice of the federal budget pie.

Cutting foreign aid seems to be a popular idea with many Americans, probably because they believe we spend a lot of money on foreign aid. As the pie chart off to the right there demonstrates, which can be explored in greater depth at USAID’s Foreign Assistance Dashboard, we don’t.

Foreign aid is about one percent of the budget.

The Obama Administration has proposed a small increase in foreign aid, about one percent (which, if my math is correct, translates into a 1/100th increase for the overall budget), while some in the GOP continue to call for cutting foreign assistance.

Meanwhile, as this chat on today MSNBC’s Morning Joe described, the military budget isn’t even being talked about — even though a majority of the public has also said it favors military cuts.

On the show, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs asks: “Why are we spending $100 billion in Afghanistan which absolutely nobody believes is going to accomplish anything?”

MSNBC talks show host Joe Scarborough adds: “Two billion dollars a week.”

To which MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle also adds: “Why are we building billion dollar aircraft carriers? Do we think there’s going to be another Battle of Midway?”

The talk show folks then diverted to take note of the latest sex scandal rocking the Italian government (if you want to call it that, a government I mean), but maybe if folks keep asking these kind of questions, the largely symbolic argument favoring foreign aid cuts will be taken off the table.

The problems with the federal budget have little to do with what we spend on foreign aid. The focus should be on the real problems, the big ticket spending items — domestic “entitlements” (like health care, social security), military spending — and how we support, or don’t, government spending (i.e., our approach to taxation).

Whatever your view on how we should spend our money on foreign assistance, it’s arguable that our long history of foreign aid to Egypt — most of which was in the form of military spending — may have made a critical difference in giving us a voice with the Egyptian military as it has now taken over the country following the popular revolt.

Whether this ends with democracy, and a new Middle East, or just another military dictatorship remains to be seen. But if we cut back on the piddling amount of the budget we now devote to foreign aid, we are simply deciding to not have a voice in many parts of the world where what happens directly affects our security and well-being.

Here’s a good overview by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein on What the budget says about America. Says Klein:

Cutting government spending is a grim and unpopular business, at least when you get specific about it. A Pew Research Center poll released last week asked Americans whether they’d like to increase or decrease spending in 18 areas. In all but two, Americans wanted to see spending go up, not down. And those two – unemployment insurance and foreign aid – are mere rounding errors in the budget. It’s like dieting by swearing off canapes: It’s something, but I wouldn’t rush out to buy smaller pants.

Here are a few other good articles focused on foreign aid and the budget:

Foreign Policy: State Department budget request may be dead on arrival

The Guardian: US foreign aid benefits recipients and the donor

Politico: Foreign aid groups respond to budget proposal


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.