Mission possible: fixing foreign aid
By Bob Williams on July 14, 2009
© The State online
All across South Carolina and the country, there are thousands of people from churches, synagogues and mosques preparing for, returning from and working through their summer "mission" trips. I know these folks, because I have talked to them in airplanes and airports as a fellow mission project worker. We want to do what we can to make the world a better place. That world may only be a tiny village in Honduras, a bare-bones hospital or infirmary in Africa or a school in Nicaragua.
Returning volunteers almost always report their trips as a life-changing experience. What few returning volunteers do is tell their congressional representatives about the needs they have seen and ask them to strengthen our U.S. government foreign assistance partnerships.
Whether or not you’ve ever taken a mission trip, U.S. citizens are helping those in greatest need help themselves. The United States funds non-governmental organizations, including many faith-based groups, that have helped get millions of children in school and encouraged mothers to immunize their babies in newly built health facilities and farmers to learn new strategies to improve their crops. More children are living to see their 5th birthday. At the same time, nearly a billion people still lack access to safe sources of drinking water. Half the world’s population struggles to survive on less than $2 per day. Most of these people spend up to 80 percent of their household budget on staples such as rice, cassava and maize. As a result of rising food prices, the number of hungry people has increased by 115 million, for a total of 963 million people worldwide. We are a large supporter of foreign aid, but at less than half a percent of our national budget, we fall behind 20 other industrialized nations in giving when comparing the percent of gross national income.
Over decades and dozens of mission projects in community development and hunger relief, I have witnessed both the challenges and successes of U.S. foreign assistance, whether it came from a government agency or from a church group. From supplying school uniforms to building latrines to providing seeds for patio gardens, the most successful projects resulted when the goals and responsibilities were clear and all parties coordinated and cooperated. That is not currently the case with U.S. foreign assistance programs, which still operate under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Today, poverty reduction is not the primary goal of U.S. foreign assistance. There are 33 different goals, 75 priority areas and 247 directives, executed by at least 12 departments; 25 different agencies administer foreign assistance programs. That translates to 48 years of agencies multiplying, duplicating and sometimes failing to make serious progress toward a better, safer world.
When targeted and given the proper resources, foreign aid can work. However, it will take more than money to fight extreme poverty and hunger: It will take better policies. Most mission volunteers understand that political, social and economic systems contribute to hunger and poverty. Countries and communities face crushing debt burdens, unfair trade rules, poor governance and disruptive conflicts as they try to improve the well-being of their citizens. U.S. development policy cannot be only about emergency food aid, but must also address these other constraints to improved living standards. With these decisions scattered across nearly 60 government offices, a holistic plan for development is nearly impossible.
Foreign aid needs to be fixed. Three congressmen from South Carolina have a chance to make that happen. Reps. Gresham Barrett, Bob Inglis and Joe Wilson all sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and can help move foreign assistance into the 21st century by supporting, H.R. 2139, the "Initiating Foreign Assistance Reform Act of 2009." This bipartisan bill calls for a comprehensive strategy for global development and requires the president to develop and implement a rigorous system for monitoring and evaluating foreign assistance, including reporting results to taxpayers via the Internet. The bill deserves swift, decisive support from South Carolina’s U.S. representatives.
Returning mission teams can help by sharing their stories with elected decision-makers as well as with their faith communities. It takes the head as well as the heart to serve God’s world.
Dr. Williams is a distinguished professor, emeritus, in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. He is actively involved in local and international outreach and mission work with his congregation, Shandon Presbyterian Church, and South Carolina's Trinity Presbytery.