Foreign Aid Is Everyone’s Responsibility

Written by

Lisa Schechtman
Lisa Schechtman Lisa Schechtman is the head of policy and advocacy at WaterAid in America, the U.S. member of WaterAid International, the world’s largest NGO focused on providing safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene education (WASH) services for poor communities in 27 countries around the world. Prior to joining WaterAid, Lisa served as policy director at the Global AIDS Alliance, and was a member of the Developed Country NGO Delegation to the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Lisa has a Masters of Arts in International Human Rights and Global Health Affairs from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in English Literature and French Language from Northwestern University. She is based in Washington, DC.

1961 produced some classics, such as Paul Newman in The Hustler, Ray Charles singing “Hit the Road Jack,” and Barbie’s Ken. It also produced an American vision of foreign aid.


In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) and established the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Unlike the classics, however, the FAA is not timeless. In fact, many experts feel it’s time for a sequel.

During the Cold War, U.S. foreign assistance was tied primarily to geopolitics and national security. USAID’s reach and general benevolence provided important understanding of culture and politics. The FAA, however, also recognized an important reality: that helping people and alleviating poverty, preventable illness, and general strife is good for everyone, including Americans.

The world today is different: the Cold War is over, and there has been a philosophical shift to make foreign aid its own foreign policy goal and not just a tool of defense or diplomacy. USAID’s approach increasingly reflects this changed landscape, and is now seen more as an altruistic reflection of our American national identity, promoting tolerance, democracy and human rights.

The Obama Administration, including USAID itself, has shown leadership in linking development, defense and diplomacy as equal parts of a comprehensive approach to making our country safer and helping people around the world to feel the same. Yet, these shifts may be ephemeral, because reform remains at the whim of the Administration, and funding at the whim of Congress.

To respond, Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA), in collaboration with a wide swath of partners, designed a framework for a 21st century foreign assistance strategy. It was recently introduced in the House of Representatives as the Global Partnership Act of 2012 (GPA), H.R. 6644.

The GPA seeks to enhance USAID’s emphasis on results, accountability, and transparency. It acknowledges that complex challenges benefit from broader vision, rather than piecemeal objectives, establishing overarching goals to reduce global poverty, promote democracy and human rights, and use resources in a sustainable way. It requires USAID to focus on the poorest, rather than diverting funds for political purposes. As its name suggests, the GPA also encourages USAID to work in partnership, to leverage expertise and resources and ensure local governments and communities can influence programs that are most appropriate in their contexts.

Congressman Berman has shown outstanding leadership in providing a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to institutionalizing USAID as the premiere development agency in the world. To continue his legacy, we must first ensure that foreign assistance funding is protected.

USAID’s own history has perhaps led to confusion among the American public. When surveyed about how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, most Americans estimate 25 percent, suggesting that 13 percent would be a more appropriate figure.

In fact, less than 1 percent of the total federal budget goes to foreign aid.

Regardless of its source, this misconception matters, and is shared by some Members of Congress, leading some to suggest that cutting foreign aid is a good way to fix our country’s financial woes.

It would take another blog to highlight USAID’s many contributions to national security, economic growth, and poverty reduction. While there is always room for improvement (hence the GPA), a great deal of the work USAID has done in its first 50 years should be continued, because it has made a difference.

The GPA sets a path for U.S. foreign policy to follow into the 21st century. It will not become law during the 112th Congress, but the GPA provides a critical opportunity to educate ourselves and each other about the role of foreign assistance in our foreign policy, about its successes and lessons learned. It also reminds us to protect the foreign affairs budget.

At less than 1 percent of the total federal budget, these funds have lifesaving impacts, promoting good in the world and here at home. Why not take this opportunity to tell a friend—or your Members of Congress—why you support foreign aid? Congressman Berman and many others have worked hard to make USAID the best it can be in today’s interconnected world; after all, the agency’s tag line, “From the American People,” should mean something to us all.

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