The Conservative Case for International Aid

By: Scott Jennings

This dispatch from a recent trip to Rwanda and Tanzania to see personally the results of American foreign aid programming appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal on December 23, 2015.

The view from high in the mountains of northern Rwanda is breathtaking, both for the arrestingly lush green scenery and for the plight of the roughly 14,000 people who make their home in the Gihembe refugee camp, where I found myself on a recent Wednesday.

You see as many American flags in the camp as Rwandan; aid workers wear the Stars and Stripes on their shirts and banners everywhere say “from the American people.” Wander by the poultry operation and you’ll find our flag over the door. The projection of American power to these Congolese refugees comes in the form of baby formula and chickens, not military equipment.

Yoko Matsumoto, an American aid worker from California, smiles as she introduces us to some of the women and children who make up over half of the camp’s population. She tells me that American intervention has eliminated instances of HIV/AIDS transmission from mothers to babies.

It is one thing to read about American goodwill in an abstract briefing paper and quite another to see the results firsthand.

***

Foreign aid helps us achieve many American objectives, such as fighting terrorism and following through on our “moral beliefs and values,” expert Ray Offenheiser writes. Conservatives should embrace the view that foreign aid has a vital place alongside a strong military when it comes to creating a world safe for American values and commerce. The Republican Party’s legacy on the matter is clear.

“The ultimate importance to the United States of our security and development assistance programs cannot be exaggerated. The programs…in these bills will enable the United States to continue its contribution to the achievement of a secure and stable international environment,” President Ronald Reagan said when signing International Security and Foreign Assistance Legislation in 1981.

But today’s candidates frequently face voters with long-held misperceptions about what we actually spend on foreign aid in the federal budget. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2013 found that, on average, Americans believe that 28 percent of our budget is spent on foreign aid (that’s more than Social Security, Medicare or defense!). The reality is the number is less than one percent.

Reagan once said that “foreign aid suffers from a lack of domestic constituency, in large part because the results of the programs are not immediately visible and self-evident.” As I stood in a remote Rwandan village with Elevansie and her children, a place few American voters will ever visit, the results were clear. This woman farmer was learning new techniques through a program called Ejo Heza, part of USAID’s “Feed the Future” initiative.

John Ames, an American with Louisville roots who works for a non-profit partner called Global Communities, explained that that chronic malnutrition for 44 percent of Rwandan children leads to improper cognitive development and, therefore, an inability to learn properly and eventually participate in the private economy. The convergence of the U.S. government, corporate partners like Walmart, and non-profit implementation in a program like this was reassuring, as taxpayers aren’t shouldering the load alone.

If Elevansie lived closer to Cleveland she’d have a speaking slot at the next Republican National Convention, as she is a perfect example of how conservative, market-based values transform lives. From us she learned to grow cabbage, bananas, and onions so well that she sustains her family’s nutritional needs as well as many in her village. She turned a profit on what she learned and is using the proceeds to send her kids to college, the embodiment of getting a hand up, not a handout.

Her kids won’t need American assistance the way their mother did, and their lives now have a “horizon of hope,” a term used by retired U.S. Army General Kip Ward, a traveling companion on this trip. Ward, the first commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), knows more about this place than most. His point — when people have hope they are less susceptible to the hateful ideologies of ISIS, Al Shabaab, and other terrorist groups.

In General Ward’s eyes, the small amount of money we spend on basic farming instruction in the Nyanza District of Rwanda makes us safer, and I am inclined to believe him.

***

In Arusha, Tanzania, schoolchildren gleefully sing and dance on a Friday morning. I understand one word: PEPFAR.

It’s amusing and gratifying that a U.S. government acronym has become a happy song lyric.

PEPFAR — the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — was the brainchild of George W. Bush back in 2003. President Bush has saved more lives than any other U.S. president, according to some observers. At last count, 9.5 million people are receiving life-saving assistance from PEPFAR.

The kids I met at the Burka Primary school are among the 5.5 million African orphans and vulnerable children receiving PEPFAR assistance, learning to grow food, filter clean water, and generally sustain themselves. These kids were 12–15 years old, although they looked eight or nine. Malnutrition early in life stunted their growth.

These children are also receiving life-saving HIV/AIDS screenings and treatments through anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), part of the overall PEPFAR mission of saving as many lives as possible by finding out who has HIV/AIDS and then providing drugs to extend their lives.

Because of American aid, these orphans can leave behind what would have otherwise been a chaotic existence. I’ve been humming the PEPFAR song since I left Africa.

***

The Bush Administration approach — building on Reagan’s legacy — increased funding, transparency, and accountability. We now prioritize outputs as much as inputs. Nations accepting our assistance through programs like the Millennium Challenge Corporation (another Bush 43 initiative) must meet economic, democratic, and human rights benchmarks. Republicans have been getting this right for a long while and we ought not to stop anytime soon.

Engaging in the world through humanitarian aid is the right thing to do by our moral code, our American values, and our desire for a more secure and stable world. Conservatives should continue to embrace the foreign assistance legacy of Reagan and Bush in 2016 and beyond.

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Scott Jennings has been an advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at scott@runswitchpr.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. He traveled to Africa December 6–13, 2015, with the Center for U.S. Global Leadership, a non-profit network of businesses and NGOs; national security and foreign policy experts; and business, faith-based, academic and community leaders.

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