Celebrating and Building on the Private Generosity of Americans

By Mark Green, Ambassador and Congressman (ret.)

I recently began posting a series of pieces with some of the reasons why I believe (a) America needs foreign assistance reform and (b) Conservatives should take up the cause.  Done right, foreign assistance can play a crucial role in our foreign policy. Unfortunately, the status quo isn’t “done right” or, at least, done as well as it could be.

To summarize, here are my first seven reasons:

Reason 1: Our current foreign aid system is organizationally incoherent.

Reason 2: We need to reform the system to make our precious taxpayer dollars go much further.

Reason 3: Foreign assistance reform is a great opportunity for Conservatives to reaffirm values and initiatives we care about. 

Reason 4: Simply put, Conservatives (and Republicans) have a long history of standing up for EFFECTIVE foreign assistance.

Reason 5: The combination of fragmented authorities and overlapping bureaucracies in our current assistance framework is watering down public diplomacy efforts.

Reason 6: Making our foreign assistance operate as effectively as possible is a moral and ethical imperative.

Reason 7: The lack of coordination between our foreign assistance programs and our trade policies is hurting the effectiveness of both.

And now . . . Reason #8: Conservatives need to ensure that our foreign assistance system recognizes, protects and builds on the enormous contributions to development being made by other-than-government sources – especially faith-based institutions.

ameet[1]I’m always frustrated by the data some analysts use to measure American contributions to development.  In a capitalist system like ours, government to government aid is but a fraction of the support that Americans are providing to those in need.

For one thing, many of the donor comparisons ignore the irreplaceable economic opportunities that American businesses provide through trade and investment.  I wonder how many jobs Coca-Cola has brought to Africa? Or Ford? Or Johnson & Johnson?  And there’s simply no dispute that a good paying job is superior to any traditional program or government handout.

Conservatives need to care about foreign assistance reform so they can make sure the system explicitly recognizes these “opportunity contributions” and looks for ways to build on them.   Modest assistance initiatives aimed at teaching basic lessons on entrepreneurship, increasing workforce readiness, or otherwise helping create pro-business conditions can hasten these programs towards their oft-stated purpose: ending the need for them to continue.

Of course, other-than-government development assistance goes well beyond commercial activities. A large part of American support flows through non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”), faith-based and secular, that provide assistance each and every day, all over the world, in troubled lands and to despairing peoples. In some cases, the NGOs are contractors or implementing partners of governmental actors. To make government funds more effective, these NGOs harness their on-the-ground experience and unmatchable relationships. Faith-based organizations, in particular, often have the hard-earned trust of the people our programs seek to help.  Some are large organizations like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services, but many, many more are not.

Conservatives need to help shape foreign assistance reform to protect and, in some cases, enhance the role of NGOs.  After all, Conservatives have a long tradition of supporting the work of civil society in poverty relief. In 2001, we led the charge to support President George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiative.”  At the heart of that plan was the idea that faith-based organizations should have the opportunity to participate in government contracts or grants providing services for those in need.  While there shouldn’t be any preference or set aside for such organizations, and careful steps should be taken to ensure that tax dollars aren’t used for proselytizing, their work shouldn’t be hindered or discriminated against merely because of their faith character.

Of course, the role of NGOs in development goes well beyond that of a mere contractor or implementing partner.  Many NGOs lift lives and build communities by using their own resources. Some of those resources are contributed by businesses or foundations, but even more comes from individual Americans in a range of ways — from the collection plate to the bake sale, from the walk-a-thon to online donations and televised appeals. In many ways, the great untold story of American global leadership is the extraordinary generosity of ordinary Americans  . . .countless individuals all across our land who give of their time, treasure and talent for people they’ve never met, in places they’ve never been, and in many cases couldn’t find on a map . . .all because Americans care.

In some ways, other-than-government assistance is the most important because it so clearly conveys the values and sentiments of the American people.  Presidents and partisans come and go, and history shows that no government-to-government relationship is without its bumps and strains. But the work of many NGOs reinforces a bond between peoples – donors and recipients – that’s lasting and special.

Conservatives should care about the foreign assistance reform process that’s emerging at Foggy Bottom and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to make sure that our NGOs have a voice.  Whether it be protecting the opportunity of NGOs, both faith-based and secular, to contract with development agencies in the provision of assistance or making sure that agencies recognize and leverage the support NGOs provide, Conservatives can use the reform process to ensure that other–than–government assistance remains an essential expression of American compassion around the world.

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