During difficult budget times, it is natural that foreign aid should come under the same scrutiny as other parts of the budget. Indeed, a recent public opinion poll on budget priorities found that most Americans estimate that foreign assistance comprises 21% of the annual budget, and favor reducing it to around 11% of the total budget.1Given the reality—that U.S. foreign aid currently makes up only about 1% of the federal budget—further cuts to what is already a miniscule part of the budget are both unwarranted and would appear to have little popular support.
Yet, on February 19th, when the House of Representatives passed H.R 1 to fund the rest of Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, it cut the foreign affairs budget by $10 billion (19%) from actual FY 2010 levels.2 The large cuts that have been proposed to the foreign affairs budget would have a detrimental effect on the ability of the United States to be an effective world leader and to protect its international security and policy interests. Moreover, cuts to the international affairs budget would disproportionately affect the amount spent on democracy and human rights, which typically makes up only 10% of foreign aid activities – i.e., one-tenth of 1% of total U.S.Government spending.
This focus on budgets comes as the world watches with fascination the men and women of the Middle East and North Africa rallying together against repressive regimes in support of democratic values. The successful movements for freedom in Tunisia and Egypt, and the ongoing battles in places such as Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria are reminders that democratic values are universal values. These movements have obliterated the notion that certain parts of the world are immune to democracy. Authoritarian leaders from Tehran to Beijing to Caracas rightfully fear the implications these grassroots movements may have for their own regimes. As a result, many such leaders have attempted to tighten their grip on power. As such, it is even more vital that the United States not withdraw from the frontiers where the battles are being fought.
By promoting democracy and human rights, the United States is not only making an investment in universal values, but making an investment in its own national security and strategic interests. Every day the United States faces the economic and strategic costs of having to ally itself with repressive and inherently unstable foreign governments. The ouster of long-time American ally and dictatorial Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak demonstrated how quickly situations can change when dealing with unrepresentative leaders. By promoting good governance, respect for human rights, strong democratic institutions, and robust civil society movements abroad, the United States is investing in its own stability. Stable democratic countries make better economic and trade partners, as well as more reliable military and strategic allies. Yet, democracy and human rights funding has traditionally been shortchanged. If there were ever a time to redouble these efforts, that time is now.
Read the full report here.