This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
I watched the Republican debates from my hotel in London this week, where I am meeting with other World Vision leaders. Being overseas, and watching them hours after the live event, provides a more objective perspective on home. During part of the discussion that evening, I found myself thinking: This is not the America I love.
One audience member asked a question on foreign aid. She said, "The American people are suffering in our country right now. Why do we continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?"
Truthfully, this is a tough question. More Americans than ever since the Great Depression are out of work. Families have lost billions of dollars in net worth as their investment accounts have plummeted and housing values have sunk. Many people have lost their homes. Shouldn't we get our own house in order before trying to sweep up someone else's?
I have to be honest. While America's house needs a thorough spring cleaning, millions of the poor around the world are barely hanging on to survival, living in mud huts or under no roof at all. Those fleeing the famine now occurring in the Horn of Africa are building tents by tying pieces of cloth to sticks.
The very real needs of Americans pale in comparison to the needs foreign aid addresses. Poor families around the world are right now starving to death. If we cut American aid, we can be sure that millions will die. At a time when our politicians are considering how to cut as much as $1,500 billion from the federal budget we shouldn't try to cut the $16 billion we spend annually to assist the victims of malaria, famine, or natural disasters.
If I were advising the Republican candidates, I would encourage them to clear up some misperceptions about American foreign aid.
First, American aid is a small fraction of the US budget. Aid to the poor is less than 0.5 percent of the federal budget. It amounts to 14 cents per American per day. It hardly makes sense to think we can solve our fiscal problems by cutting funding to the poorest people in the world.
Despite its small proportion to the budget as a whole, American aid is extremely effective. Three million people today are alive because of the PEPFAR AIDS program, which provides lifesaving drugs and 2.5 million AIDS orphans are being cared for. American assistance in the fight against malaria has saved an estimated 1 million lives. Preventable child deaths have declined from more than 20 million in 1960 to 7.6 million in 2010. Lives are at stake in this discussion.
Foreign aid promotes liberty and prosperity. A study of American assistance found that it led to increased democracy in the countries that received the aid. We are providing to others the freedoms we enjoy, allowing them to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This wins America friends and creates goodwill. It even leads to jobs back home as half of US exports go to developing countries.
Ron Paul was wrong when he said, "Foreign aid is taking money from poor people in this country and giving it to rich people in poor countries." Foreign aid isn't perfect, and not every dollar spent is as efficient as it could be. Solving poverty means dealing with a complex equation. But the money spent on foreign assistance for the poor is some of the most effective in the US budget. I've seen the rigorous controls our government has in place. Just because it's not perfect, doesn't mean we should stop doing it.
Doing good around the world is what I love about America. I have seen first-hand the incredible work our country does. I've seen the goodwill it builds. I have met people who are alive today because of American assistance. I believe in America, and that is why I believe in American aid.
In his parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus told the story of the man who had compassion on the victim of robbers. While others passed by, Jesus commended the person who acted as a neighbor. "Go and do likewise," he said. (Luke 10:37)
Are we accurately reflecting our great nation if we simply pass the buck to others, with comments like, "We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people," as one candidate said? We are not the kind of nation that asks others to do the hard work and to care for the most vulnerable. Throughout its history, American has acted as Good Samaritan, as neighbors, to the world.
Foreign aid isn't a campaign issue to bicker about. It's not an issue of left and right. It's about right and wrong. In the toughest times, the choices we make reflect our deepest character and values. Now, more than ever, the world needs America to go and do likewise.
Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision, a leading Christian relief and development organization dedicated to helping children and their communities worldwide by tackling the causes of poverty.