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The Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to foreign aid have been an item of much attention in the media, and a source of anxiety at the humanitarian organization where I work as a security consultant. The cuts will directly affect staffing and operations budgets. There is much despair amongst those who voted against Trump (which is the vast majority of the organization) while those of us who voted against the simply unthinkable alternative accept the inevitable with stoicism. Yes, it will hurt employment opportunities in the short term, but the Federal budget must be trimmed, a dent must be put in the national debt and the ultimate benefit to the economy will be a “rising tide (that) lifts all boats.”
Meanwhile, some introspection and analysis has taken place. Looking back to the Kennedy administration as a milestone, how effective has American foreign aid been over the past fifty-odd years? Sadly, significant success stories appear to be few and far between.
South Africa is one of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) predicted to be on a path to economic superpower-dom. Despite this, the United States has a foreign aid program in place in South Africa. Admittedly, the focus of this program is to counter the AIDS epidemic that is prevalent in that country. The United States has spent upwards of a billion dollars fighting AIDS by promoting abstinence. Has there been measurable success? Sadly, no.
While much of Africa is experiencing measurable progress, South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, is well on the path to becoming the world’s next failed state. The U.S. helped mid-wife the birth of this small nation after the discovery of oil reserves empowered the local resistance movements against the oppressive Khartoum regime to the north. Loans from the World bank and other sources were guaranteed based on the (then) $100USD-per-barrel price of oil. When oil prices dropped 50% in late 2014, this local currency was devastated and the resultant in hyper-inflation spelled economic disaster.
American foreign service officers point to Bangladesh as a distinct success story. Upon achieving independence from Pakistan in 1972, Bangladesh was the world’s poorest nation. Over the past twenty years, however, this tiny, over-populated nation has experienced up to 15% economic growth annually. This remarkable economic boom allowed a middle class to emerge where before there were only the very rich and the very poor. But this unparalleled wave of prosperity is more due to Chinese and Korean investment in Bangladesh’s textile and garment industries than to Western nations foreign aid assistance. True, foreign aid has made significant contributions to roads and bridges, schools and clinics, clean water and agricultural programs over the years. But the next time you buy a shirt, look at the label. Odds are five-to-one it was manufactured in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is clothing the world, and that’s a lot of shirts, trousers, socks and underwear.
All of the aforementioned is not unknown to US foreign service officers, of course. Acknowledging these circumstances during discussions of the upcoming cuts to foreign aid, a colleague admitted that perhaps it is time for a new paradigm. Handing out sacks of rice and flour, sponsoring schools and funding agricultural programs are not producing measurable success, while direct capital investment into commercial enterprises appears to be producing remarkable results.
Where measurable economic progress has occurred in Africa, indicators point to Chinese investment in infrastructure, European, American and Asian business ventures, or the economic ripple-effect of military activity, UN and EU spending to counter ISIS and other terror organizations.
In Africa there has been a remarkable boom of Chinese commercial activity. China’s new middle class has a tremendous hunger for beef on their tables and a thirst for fuel for their newly acquired automobiles. Every airport I’ve been through on the continent in the past two years is being upgraded and expanded by Chinese construction companies. Paved roads are now in place where for centuries only dirt tracks existed. To produce what China needs, power generation schemes, water supply and sewerage disposal systems must be developed. Transportation – and ancillary industries – must be put in place. Factories and canneries have been established and the housing and living requirements for workers and their families are resulting in a construction boom. All this new commercial activity has resulted in a remarkable wave of prosperity over the world’s poorest continent.
Humanitarian operations and charity organizations still fill a significant need. Vaccination programs, educating the next generation and assisting the very poor is vital work. But perhaps the time has come to hand over the mission of development and combating extreme poverty to the forces of commerce. Trimming government spending will lighten the tax burden to companies that provide investment. Yes, this may cost me and my colleagues a job, but security is ultimately a business and business is good. I’ll go where the money is. Perhaps its time to brush up on my Mandarin.
Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.