On the campaign trail, President Trump promised to put America first by slashing foreign aid and scaling back our international commitments. This position was popular because many Americans think the US government wastes too many taxpayer dollars on aid, when that money could be invested in health and education at home rather than abroad. But the images now emerging from Puerto Rico and our response to the growing humanitarian emergency in the region show firsthand why US foreign aid is essential for saving lives abroad.
President Trump’s skepticism about foreign aid echoes that of many Americans. A March 2016 YouGov survey reported that 68% of Republicans and 42% of Democrats believe the United States gives too much in foreign aid. 57% of respondents in a March 2017 survey said that the $42.4 billion in US economic and military aid slated for 2017 was excessive. But few Americans actually know how small a percentage of the federal budget that figure represents, and only about 16% of the US foreign aid budget is spent on humanitarian aid. Most Americas are unaware of how far a relatively small amount of aid can go in saving lives and helping nations recover from disasters.
Every year, USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance draws on part of the foreign aid budget to respond to an average of 65 disasters in more than 50 countries. The US military is also key in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, providing logistical support for relief efforts and transporting privately-donated humanitarian assistance to foreign countries. The vast resources at the military’s disposal are essential for the timely delivery of aid to areas that may otherwise be inaccessible.
Proponents of US foreign aid know that the United States is unmatched in its ability and willingness to marshal these resources in response to disasters, natural or man-made, worldwide. So while hurricanes Harvey and Irma wreaked havoc on the US mainland, the devastation left by Maria in Puerto Rico and neighboring countries will demonstrate to an American audience the United States’ unique ability to respond.
Sadly, a sizable portion of the American population does not know that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Its remoteness makes it seem foreign, but its importance as a US territory populated by American citizens ensures that media attention will remain focused on its long road to recovery.
That is a silver lining for those who wish to challenge the roughly 45% of Americans who support cutting humanitarian assistance. When lives are hanging in the balance, American military helicopters and ships full of supplies will bring relief to fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, just as they do for countless people in need around the world.
The United States has consistently been there for less fortunate nations struggling in the aftermath of disasters. It can and should continue to do so. Selfishly looking inward and ignoring the United States’ ability to do so much good abroad, at such a relatively low cost, is not a recipe for making America great again. Just ask our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.