In the United States, the federal government spends the majority of its money on social programs like welfare, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As a result, our absolute poverty rate has dramatically decreased over the past half century, and other countries have achieved even better results. Undoubtedly, social programs greatly improve people’s lives. However, the U.S. spent $3.5 trillion last year, which means we spent trillions on social programs. Although this itself is not a problem, our social programs are not necessarily the most cost-effective use of our money. For example, it is estimated that by distributing mosquito nets to prevent malaria, a life can be saved for less than $3,000. Therefore, the U.S. should dramatically increase foreign aid spending even at the cost of domestic social program spending. This should not be too difficult, considering that less than 1 percent of our budget goes to foreign aid.
Many people, namely the political left, tend to support both increasing foreign aid and expanding the welfare state to benefit American citizens. However, it is important to look at what kind of spending most effectively helps people. Foreign aid spending wins in this regard, because the same amount of money has the ability to improve lives much more as aid than as domestic spending.
Beyond human rights reasons, there are nationalistic reasons for the U.S. to be interested in the livelihood of those in developing countries: If more people become healthy and productive, the world economy as a whole will improve. In fact, many economists are predicting that within the next century Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that includes some of the highest poverty rates in the world, will become a hub for manufacturing jobs because of its current abundance of cheap labor.
If foreign aid is used effectively, it can help develop economies, reducing the need for aid in the future as investments that help economies — such as in public health and infrastructure — pay off. This could conceivably lead to absolute poverty levels dropping to near zero in the next few centuries. Although the economic effects of this are currently unclear, it is beneficial for us to help developing economies grow.
To anybody who believes that countries should prioritize the well-being of their own citizens, the above is a far-sighted reason to dramatically expand foreign aid. However, it is not the best reason. The best reason to dramatically expand foreign aid, even at the expense of domestic spending, is because all lives matter equally. Although the role of a government is to govern a country, the governments of economically-able countries have a responsibility to use their resources to help people most in need to the greatest extent possible, regardless of where the person lives.
This does not mean that the United States should take actions that would hurt our own economy. This would backfire, hurting the entire world economy, including the countries we try to help. Poverty would increase in the developing world if we damaged the U.S. economy while trying to help, as demonstrated by how the U.S. economic recession in 2008 affected the whole world. Therefore, economically-able countries being as altruistic as possible entails maintaining programs benefiting our own citizens. It is important to strike a balance between foreign and domestic spending, and the current problem is that our current balance skews too far toward domestic spending.
Some say aid money is not used effectively, that it simply creates economic dependence or almost never reaches the people intended. These are serious criticisms of foreign aid that need to be addressed. However, considering the magnitude and myriad of problems affecting the developing world, it is important to give foreign aid and therefore necessary to determine how to use it effectively.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.