Our government's assistance to foreign countries is an easy target, susceptible to the budget knife, especially given misperceptions about its value and the fact that there is no natural domestic constituency advocating for it.
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The ongoing budget debates in Washington taking place under the ominous cloud of sequester will likely tell us a lot about who we are as a nation. Difficult decisions have a way of exposing the most basic core of our collective character, and how we deal with the hard choices ahead of us will speak volumes about how faithfully we can remain to our founding principles.

That is the context in which I am viewing the debate over international development assistance, a comparably small but vitally important part of the federal budget and one that finds itself especially vulnerable amid the fiscal discussions happening in Washington. Overall, spending on international affairs -- a large portion of which is focused on development assistance -- is slated to be sliced by more than 5 percent in the current fiscal year and perhaps as much as $50 billion in the decade to come.

Let's be clear: The impact of such cuts would be devastating, and just when so much tangible, yet still reversible, progress has been made. With fewer than 1,000 days to go until the 2015 target date for reaching an important set of Millennial Development Goals, the world's extreme poverty rate has already been cut in half, with more girls in school, fewer children dying and momentum in other areas continuing to accelerate. The size of the cuts being considered has the potential to undercut this progress and turn the clock back on years of success.

Our government's assistance to foreign countries is an easy target, susceptible to the budget knife, especially given misperceptions about its value and the fact that there is no natural domestic constituency advocating for it.

The misperceptions start with the amount of assistance we provide developing nations in the first place: 1 percent of the federal budget. A recent ChildFund International survey found that more than half of Americans (55 percent) believe that the U.S. spends at least 10 percent of our budget on providing international assistance. On average, survey respondents thought that $1 in $5 (22 percent) of the federal budget was directed at international aid. These colossal overestimations belie what is in reality a conservative commitment, particularly when you remember that international assistance also includes support for our nation's diplomatic and strategic needs.

Those considerations aside, the case for at least maintaining current levels of international assistance also can be made on economic grounds. The growth of our economy at home depends in large part on opening new markets around the world, including the increasingly stable countries of Africa. Modernized infrastructures and advances in education and literacy throughout the continent are laying the groundwork for untapped economic opportunity, both for those living in these countries as well as foreign countries now knocking on their doors. Port cities throughout Africa are bustling with the arrival of exports from around the globe.

These favorable conditions for economic progress did not happen by accident. In many ways, they are the byproduct of sustained international assistance, a steady commitment of targeted resources that have helped improve these nations' capacity to become economic partners.

If our political leaders have not yet made this connection, many of the nation's most progressive business chiefs already have. They recognize that thriving economies within developing nations are beneficial to our own economy at home, opening up untapped markets for our products and creating more American jobs.

Corporate leaders from a variety of business sectors are making this case to opinion leaders and policymakers as part of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. The group, which I and other leaders of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are proud to be taking an active part in, was formed to provide what is in effect a proxy constituency for recipients of international assistance. As a member of the Chairman's Caucus, along with senior officials from Coca-Cola, Deloitte, Google, Walmart and other major international companies, we are lending our voices to the discussion on how to best leverage America's resources so that progress around the world can continue. That progress will provide increased prosperity for millions of people in developing nations as well as help grow the U.S. economy as a whole. International assistance represents a significant return on investment in every dimension.

As the government mulls major cuts to international assistance, we cannot overlook the moral argument for sparing it from the budget knife. Given the comparatively small amount of U.S. dollars that are reaching developing nations in the form of humanitarian aid, our nation's fiscal woes will not be solved on the backs of cutting aid to the world's poorest families and children, the billions of people who are living on less than $2 a day. These modest dollars are critical to their health and wellbeing. The sad reality is that children are dying from causes that are preventable -- from lack of food, water and proper sanitation. International assistance -- coupled with the work from global NGOs -- is helping disrupt the cycle of poverty and bring hope and opportunity to those who have been mired in deprivation and hardship for generations.

While the great wealth of our country may instill in us an obligation to help those from poor nations, more to the point is what such a commitment says about our nation's identity and character. International assistance aligns with America's deepest values -- the founding principle that dictates that everyone should have the opportunity to live full and happy lives, irrespective of where their first breaths were taken. Providing this sense of fairness beyond our shores is a natural extension of our core beliefs.

I am blessed to have the opportunity to witness progress on a personal basis, to stare into the eyes of children whose lives have been given a sense of hopefulness that their parents had never known. Our collective commitment to these children should not fall victim to sequester or to indiscriminate belt-tightening.

Our relatively small yet vital commitment to international assistance defines who we are to the rest of the world. But more importantly, it defines who we are to ourselves.

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