Donors in the U.S. and elsewhere are sending money to earthquake-shattered Nepal at a record pace. The devastating earthquake in Nepal is moving hearts and wallets. Why, then, when it comes to U.S. foreign aid, do so many of our fellow Americans buy into meaningless myths that threaten our good work around the world?
Let’s start with Nepal, the famous home of Mt. Everest that lies between India and Tibet. The tragedy caused by the recent 7.8-magnitude earthquake will increase as time wears on: the death toll now exceeds 7,500; injuries and damage are widespread; and some 8 million people need humanitarian aid. The Nepalese government reports that up to 90 percent of health facilities are partially damaged in the worst hit areas, and one of the largest private hospitals in the capital city of Kathmandu is inoperable. Some 1.7 million children are in need of food assistance. This crisis is only going to get worse.
In comes foreign aid.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that within days, Mercy Corps had raised $2.9 million from more than 13,000 donors, 260 percent of what it raised during the first four days after the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Fidelity Charitable donors have made grants totaling $2.7 million. Catholic Relief Services collected $2.2 million in donations and American Jewish World Service expects to top $1 million, closely matching the $1 million raised for Typhoon Haiyan and $1.1 million during the Ebola outbreak.
The U.S. government has committed $26 million in emergency assistance, accompanied by a 130-member disaster response team, and more than three-dozen vetted aid organizations that will help implement a coordinated ground response. Food for the Hungry is collaborating with 14 other international relief organizations in Nepal.
Commendable and life-saving efforts by all. But when the news photographers go home after this earthquake – or the next flood, famine, conflict, or epidemic – the victims of violence, disaster, disease, hunger, and thirst remain. And so does the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, working with its many partners to help with the crucial lifesaving and re-building that tirelessly continues outside the camera lens.
Key to foreign aid is this public-private partnership. The private sector cannot go it alone. It’s true that many secular and faith-based non-governmental organizations have decades of experience and expertise on the ground and the trust of local communities around the world. But they can’t do what the U.S. government can – globally coordinate resource-generating strategies, convene governments, and influence policies.
Yet in a time-tested refrain – from Capitol Hill to our neighbors next door – the false myths surrounding foreign aid inevitably creep in – “it’s 25 percent of the federal budget” and “it doesn’t work;” it’s “wasted on dictators” when “we need to take care of our own;” “let the private sector take care of foreign aid.”
Myths – damaging myths – every one of them.
Perhaps the biggest myth is how much we spend on foreign aid. The entire foreign aid budget is less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Less than 1 percent, and it’s some of the most effective money we spend. Aid works. Six million fewer children under 5 will die this year than in 1990; around the world children are being protected from sickness and death at a rate unprecedented in history.
According to research done by Advocates for Development Assistance, a project of the New Venture Fund:
- $1.20 a year per American funds all U.S. government foreign aid programs to provide access to safe drinking water.
- 65 cents a year per American funds USG’s efforts overseas to eradicate polio.
- $3.45 a year per American funds the USG’s work to defeat malaria.
- 30 cents a year per American funds USG’s efforts to treat a collection of seven painful, debilitating, and deadly tropical diseases that afflict one billion people.
As voters, we may disagree about policies, but since World War II, America’s foreign aid work around the world has been an important, bipartisan-supported tool in the balance between defense, diplomacy and development. Aid has never been a choice between “us” and “them.”
Let’s also remember that we feel the effectiveness of foreign aid here at home. Americans in all 50 states benefit from reducing diseases that know no borders, like Ebola; we help our economy by increasing viable trade partners in today’s global economy; protecting our military from unnecessary conflict is always a priority; and making the world a better place isn’t all that bad either.
We are making unprecedented progress, but much remains to be done. Beyond the headlines is a quieter and even deadlier epidemic – 17,000 children die every single day, mainly from preventable illnesses and diseases, like pneumonia and diarrhea. We cannot fail these children. But it’s budget time again, and that means the foreign aid is back on the annual chopping block. Reducing that one percent budget means there will be cuts – maybe in disease prevention, access to safe water and sanitation, providing prenatal care, keeping girls safe and in school, increasing crop yields – aid that helps communities and countries become safer and more self-sufficient for the long term.
If you believe in these ideas and practical realities, we must as Americans correct the damaging myths of foreign aid and embrace the momentum we’ve built through life-saving, inspiring, and hard work accomplished by our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and congregations.
Gary Edmonds is President/CEO of Food for the Hungry, a leading international global health and development faith-based NGO in Phoenix.