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Another great American tradition: foreign aid

Like the rest of America, I will be tuning in Sunday to watch Baltimore's own Ravens play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLVII. The Super Bowl has become a great American tradition. But there's another tradition that demonstrates our nation's finest values and doesn't get nearly as much attention — and that's the good we do around the world.

You only need to turn on the television briefly or glance at a newspaper to see why our engagement in the world is so critical to our nation's security, economy and standing. Unfortunately, most Americans don't realize what a good value our foreign assistance efforts are. Most would be surprised to learn that foreign aid amounts to only about 1 percent of the federal budget.

Let's take a look at how cost effective our global development efforts are in light of something we all enjoy, the Super Bowl. Americans will eat about 200 million pounds of food on Sunday — more than a year's worth of U.S. famine relief to Kenya. And for the cost of one of those entertaining, 30-second Super Bowl ads, we buy mosquito nets for 800,000 children at risk of malaria..

And Monday after the game, you may be one of the 7 million Americans who call in sick due to a little too much celebrating. However, let's keep in mind there are 7 million Africans who are able to work and provide for their families that day because of U.S. efforts to eliminate and treat HIV/AIDS.

These facts should certainly not keep us from laughing at the funniest ads or eating a crab cake for each touchdown the Ravens score, but they do put into perspective just how little it takes to make a big difference.

The United States is inextricably linked with the rest of the world. From the Arab Spring to famine in Eastern Africa to natural disasters in Indonesia and Haiti, our national interests are at stake.

The national security challenges we face today are far more complex and nuanced than they once were. While our military stands ready to respond to threats we face, many of these challenges defy military solutions. We need to utilize our tools of development and diplomacy alongside defense to keep America truly safe.

The truth is, working to alleviate poverty, illiteracy and crippling illness is an essential building block for stable families and societies — and the more stable societies are, the less likely they are to succumb to extremism and terrorism. By addressing these very human needs, we address the roots of many of today's security challenges. Preventing conflict before it occurs keeps our brave men and women in uniform out of harm's way and saves the lives of innocent people in these countries.

From an economic perspective, 95 percent of consumers live outside of the United States. The fastest-growing markets are in the developing world, where half of our exports already go. Maryland exported nearly $11 billion in goods and services in 2011, supporting one in five jobs in our state. Giving American businesses greater access to these markets is the key to growing our economy and creating jobs here.

As our leaders in Washington work to resolve the fiscal questions before us, I encourage them to consider how effective and efficient our diplomatic and development programs are. For a tiny fraction of our budget, our international affairs programs strengthen our security and economy, and demonstrate America's values.

This Sunday, I will join millions of Americans in watching the Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. My money's on Joe Flacco and the Ravens for the win — and on America's global leadership for a better, safer world.

Carolyn Woo is the president and CEO of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services and a member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Her email is president@crs.org.

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