In western Ethiopia, refugee youth participate in the food distribution in the camps where they live. Food for Peace feeds tens of thousands of refugees in Ethiopia each year. Credit: Juan Carlos Rodriguez, USAID/Ethiopia

Cutting the Foreign Aid Budget Is Going to Be Harder than Trump Thinks

The White House yesterday suggested that it is contemplating a massive increase in the defense budget, to be offset by spending in other places. Foreign aid was specifically singled out for being the budgetary cross hairs. Some reports even suggested that the White House would propose a 30% across the board cut throughout the entire State Department.

When this budget is actually released though, the Trump administration will find itself confronting two giant barriers: arithmetic and politics.

The Math Just Does Not Add Up

Defense spending accounts for a massive proportion of the entire US budget, about $600 billion. Foreign aid accounts for less than 1% of the budget and comes to about $40 billion. And if you disaggregate foreign aid between foreign military aid and development assistance, the percentage is even tinier. In all, development assistance (including spending to fight diseases like HIV/AIDS, Malaria; emergency humanitarian assistance; and supporting anti- extreme poverty measures) accounts for about $25 billion.

The Washington Post’s Max Bearak and Lazaro Gamio last year created a stunning visualization of foreign aid spending. Click here to read the whole thing.

To be sure, Americans routinely and mistakenly believe that foreign aid accounts for about 25% of the entire $4 trillion budget. But the numbers don’t lie. You simply cannot balance the budget on the back of cuts to foreign aid.

The Politics Do Not Work Either

Foreign aid is one of the few remaining ideals in Washington that still enjoys a degree of bi-partisan support. Religious conservatives who tend to support Republicans are among the strongest proponents of anti-poverty measures. To that end, groups like the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Church World Service and others have joined groups like Oxfam to sign onto a letter to congressional leadership urging continued support for United States funding to the United Nations, which would be affected by big cuts in non-military discretionary funding. (US contributions to the UN amount to about 0.1% of the federal budget).

The military is also historically a proponent of increased foreign aid spending. Over 120 retired military officers, including several top retired generals, have urged congress to avoid these cuts. “We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone,” they wrote. “The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Members of Congress take notice. The most conservative and most liberal members of Congress routinely join forces to pass foreign aid bills. Last year, in the height of a contentious presidential campaign, congress passed three important foreign aid bills, including a complex modernization bill co-sponsored by Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ted Poe and Democrats Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Gerry Connolly.

The point is, a massive reduction in foreign aid in order to offset budget increases elsewhere is both numerically impossible and politically unfeasible.