The Trump administration has had very little to say about foreign assistance, apparently preferring to let the budget knife do its talking. But if we want to discern some sort of guiding philosophy to aid coming from this White House, perhaps we should look no further than aid to Israel and Egypt, the number one and number two overall US foreign aid recipients. In a budget that imposes double-digit cuts to programs aimed at disease eradication and response to humanitarian crises, military aid to these two countries has been cut not even by a whisker.
To be fair, grant-based military support has little to do with non-military aid that supports poverty reduction, disease eradication, or responses to natural disasters. And yet, these programs all reside in the same foreign assistance budget account, which means that maintaining military aid, and at a level that already makes Israel and Egypt the largest aid recipients overall, requires even deeper cuts everywhere else.
And this is where a guiding philosophy seems to reveal itself. There is clear conviction behind funding for Israel and Egypt, which is driven by a variety of factors that probably hasn’t varied much from administration to administration. In contrast, there seems to be no conviction behind the objectives of all other non-military aid programs in this budget.
By any measure of the Trump administration’s first budget, many of the long-standing aims of foreign assistance are simply not much of a priority. This can have a perverse effect for those who are used to thinking of foreign aid in terms of long-standing goals like poverty reduction or more recent goals like addressing climate change in lower income countries. When these are your aims, you tend to develop some rigorous standards around questions of need—eg, countries with lots of poor people, high incidences of disease, and few domestic resources will tend to be prioritized for US assistance.
Consider then that the largest recipient of US assistance, and one of just a few countries to avoid cuts in this budget, also happens to be wealthier on a per capita basis than 93 percent of US counties and 42 of the 50 US states. That is not a defining vision of foreign aid that would seem to have most US taxpayers on board.
Emerging from the president’s budget proposal is an approach that sees foreign aid overwhelmingly as an instrument of geostrategic interests. Protecting military aid to Israel and Egypt amidst deep cuts elsewhere is one striking element of this approach. But it’s also reflected in the elimination of the USAID-based “development assistance” account, which has had clearly defined development-related objectives, in favor of a more strategically-oriented “economic support and development fund” based at the State Department.
This is a troubling path to be starting down, both for the opportunities lost if we abandon the priorities that have guided foreign assistance in recent years and for the risks that arise as we expose more of our aid budget to the loose objectives of “geostrategic” interests. Setting aside particular countries like Israel and Egypt, a great deal of US taxpayer money has been spent over the years in the name of these interests with too little accountability, clearly defined objectives, or scrutiny of outcomes. Let’s hope Congress is willing to step in and make a course correction with this misguided first year budget. And to be clear, the sensible path has less to do with making Israel and Egypt share the pain of the foreign aid cuts than it does with questioning the basis for the cuts to begin with.