Last week, I had the privilege to travel to Washington, D.C. for a "lobby day" to protect foreign aid. CMSM is a member of the Interfaith Working Group for Foreign Assistance, which paid all expenses for the trip through a grant. Unfortunately, the organizers were not able to get me an appointment with Paul Ryan, but I did meet with my own representative, F. James Sensenbrenner, as well as Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson.
I discovered at the training sessions before the visits that foreign aid - a miniscule part of the federal budget - has been highly effective and has enjoyed bipartisan support over the decades. But the Trump Administration is calling for deep cuts in all the accounts under this heading. However, I was gratified to discover that both my Democratic (Baldwin) and Republican (Johnson and Sensenbrenner) congressional representatives agreed that cutting foreign aid is no way to balance the budget. However, they did say that they need help from supporters in dispelling the myths about foreign aid - that it eats up a huge portion of the budget, that it doesn't work, that it gives to foreigners at the expense of Americans, etc. I told them I would pass that message along to those I work for, especially the preachers, who are influential within their parishes, apostolates and personal networks.
You can read more about the myths and realities of foreign aid at the Faith in Foreign Assistance website. Below is the op-ed I submitted to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about my experience. Perhaps others can use it as a template for a shorter letter to the editor to your own local papers.
I recently was part of a delegation of dozens of faith leaders from across the U.S. who visited nearly 100 Congressional offices to discuss one of the most important investments the U.S. makes. In fact, it’s an untold success story, one that makes me proud to be an American.
Around the world, we are witnessing the greatest gains in child survival and health in human history, and it’s thanks in large part to U.S. foreign assistance -- our funding, leadership and influence. No part of the federal budget benefits more people, more cost-effectively, yet it's consistently overestimated and misunderstood. One aide told me that his boss’ constituents often estimate that it’s a quarter to one-half of the U.S. budget! In fact, it’s about one-half of 1%.
I went to Washington on behalf of the Interfaith Working Group for Foreign Assistance, 51 faith-based global health, development and humanitarian aid organizations united by the moral call to help the vulnerable. We urged Congress to sustain funding for “the least of these”, funding that promotes well-being both here and abroad. I wanted to assure our state’s Congressional delegation that when people of faith understand the reality of foreign assistance, they want to preserve, even increase, this funding.
I was gratified to meet with aides to Senators Baldwin and Johnson and Representative Sensenbrenner. They all saw the value of foreign development aid and humanitarian assistance, but need our help educating the American public about how critical this small amount of funding is to families around the world, including here in the U.S.
So I hope you will take a moment to consider this: Child death from preventable illness and disease is in historic decline. Six million fewer children under 5 will die this year than in 1990. 75% of countries have at least halved under-5 mortality rates, which means improving child survival is possible -- even in impoverished places.
Foreign assistance costs just pennies per American -- 50 cents a year funds America’s contribution to eradicating polio; 30 cents funds efforts to treat a collection of 7 debilitating tropical diseases that deform, blind and kill a billion people; $1 helps provide access to safe drinking water and $3 helps defeat malaria, while every federal dollar invested in stopping chronic malnutrition returns $30 in higher lifetime productivity.
The end result paints a picture which we can all support: Emaciated infants gaining weight, children tasting clean water for the first time, girls attending school, better harvests increasing food security. Death from diseases like measles have dropped by 85%, malaria by 58%, HIV by 61%, and clean water has helped to decrease deadly diarrhea deaths, the most common cause of death of children under age 5, by 57%. The list goes on.
U.S. foreign assistance also keeps Americans more secure. Pathogens like Ebola, as we saw, know no borders and foreign assistance helps keep our microscopic enemies away. It also promotes political stability and reduces the potential for war and refugee crises.
Foreign aid even strengthens the U.S. economy. Half of U.S. exports go to the developing world where developing markets are growing at a faster pace than many traditional partners. Agricultural and manufacturing exports are essential to creating more and better paying American jobs. In 2016, Wisconsin exported $21.0 billionin goods to foreign markets. 800,800 state jobs are supported by trade.
We ask Congress to preserve this tiny part of the budget knowing that faith-based organizations are also doing their part and have been valuable government partners, on the front lines, trusted by communities, and very effectively leveraging $5 for every public $1 received. But the role of the U.S. government remains indispensable, convening other governments, negotiating agreements, opening access to marginalized populations, keeping frontline staff safer, and creating opportunities for faith engagement.
Thankfully, all three members of Congress I met with understand that foreign aid works, and that important needs remain: Girls are still kept out of school; clean water remains a basic need in homes, schools and even healthcare facilities; food insecurity and famines persist; 76 million refugees are in urgent need of assistance. But they need to know their constituents continue to value this investment.
We are a blessed country. Though of different faiths and political persuasions, we are united by the common goal to help all God’s children, near and far. Our faith communities must continue to raise our voices and urge both Republicans and Democrats to make sure U.S. government foreign assistance doesn’t fall victim to politics. Ask your representative not to let this aid become a sacrificial lamb and with it, the vulnerable people whose lives it saves.