The secret of foreign aid

As Congress redoubles its efforts to cut expenditures from the federal budget, many worthy programs face the chopping block. Austerity means fewer federal highway projects, after-school programs and Social Security cost-of-living increases. Yet, some measures are more painful than others. Government programs providing overseas assistance can surely be cut or trimmed without feeling the sting at home. It's a win-win for politicians and taxpayers, right?

Not really.


Overseas assistance in the federal budget is actually American assistance in disguise. Poor countries receive money from our government under the condition that some of the money (about 50 percent) be used to acquire goods and services from American companies. By doing this, Congress ensures that aid money stimulates the American economy, not fragile ones in need of help. Other self-serving tactics include showering aid on strategically important countries like Egypt, while geopolitical twerps like Malawi — where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer — get squeezed; and conditioning aid upon the adoption of Western ideals like multiparty democracy and free-market capitalism. In short, we finance them to enrich our companies and import our culture. Score: Congress 1, poor countries 0.

And the story gets better for Americans. When desperate countries face a food crisis, their markets are flooded with excess grain from American farms, purchased and shipped overseas by our government. Procuring food within recipient countries (yes, starving countries have food) would save money and jump-start development, but it wouldn't help the American taxpayer. Similarly, thanks to Congress' generous domestic farm subsidies, impoverished farmers in Africa struggle to compete with U.S. farmers on international markets. Score: Congress 2, poor countries 0.


International assistance also bloats our federal bureaucracy — but not as much as you might think. With more than 20 agencies receiving money for overseas programs, redundancies abound. But humanitarian and development aid are relative bargains — less than 1 percent of the budget (although most Americans mistakenly believe that this figure is around 25 percent). Military expenditures, by contrast, account for 20 percent of the overall budget and 60 percent of discretionary spending. And every dollar spent on war is a missed opportunity to promote lasting prosperity, security and peace in the third world through economic development. Score: Congress 3, poor countries 0.

Let's face it — sincerely attacking global poverty would threaten American jobs. Instead of waging war or fattening corporate America, we would steer monies to the field, where funding decisions would be made by local specialists with superb language, cultural and historical expertise, guided by conscience and grass-roots pragmatism. Within host countries, we would build local relationships, hire local employees and buy goods and services from local vendors. We would issue grants for budding social entrepreneurs to create enterprises that address the greatest needs of local people: water, food, health care and education. Our top priority would be relieving poverty — not nation building. We would invest in them, not us.

I know this from first-hand experience. In 2006, I left my law firm (and lucrative salary) to become a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Malawi. From 2006 to 2008, I lived among ordinary Malawians, taught their children, and shared a village house with three male students. A voracious reader, I realized that most (if not all) of the development literature was written from above, by donors, politicians and economists, and that bothered me. So, after returning to the States, I wrote a book about the putative recipients of aid, the 90 percent of Malawians who practice sustenance farming, don't receive a decent education, and live on a dollar a day or less.

Facing a budget crisis, we stand conflicted. As humanitarians, we have a moral imperative to help those crippled by poverty, here and abroad. Yet, as patriotic Americans, we support our broken system of delivering international aid, which provides a lot of American jobs. Congress can fix the system and greatly improve our capacity to alleviate poverty, but that's not political reality. We need those jobs to sustain our lifestyles, even if they come at the expense of the world's poorest people.

Michael L. Buckler, a Maryland native and member of the Maryland Bar, is the author of "From Microsoft to Malawi: Learning on the Front Lines as a Peace Corps Volunteer." His e-mail is