A crisis we can avoid: Extreme poverty and the fiscal cliff

Photo caption: Princess, an HIV-positive mother, with her HIV-negative baby. Photo credit: Morgana Wingard

This blog post was originally posted on the Global Poverty Project’s Global Citizens website.

NGOs do amazing work to lift people out of poverty. And, as we are often reminded, funding this work is crucial. But even the largest NGOs on earth have budgets only a fraction the size of even dramatically underfunded government programs for foreign aid and international development.

Don’t get me wrong: donating to your favorite, most effective charity is an important part of the puzzle. But without strong government assistance our chances of ending this global injustice stand greatly diminished. We want every resource at our disposal toward ending extreme poverty within a generation, and foreign aid is crucial.

As you probably know, world governments were given a challenge in 1970 to dedicate 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) to “progressively increase […] official development assistance to the developing countries”. However, as of this decade, the United States gives an average of only 0.22%. Still, while missing the 1970 mark by a long shot, US foreign aid came to $43 billion in 2012. Compare this to Red Cross’ entire operating budget for 2010 of $3.6 billion.

Now imagine how much we can — and routinely do — accomplish through our foreign aid.

But today we’re faced with a choice. Unless compromise is reached quickly in Washington, a whole host of government aid programs will suffer severe budget cuts on New Year’s Day. We call this moment the Fiscal Cliff.
This scenario is causing dramatic predictions of a monetary crisis. In some circles it would seem that a national panic is being erected with rampant speculation of the cliff’s effects and predictions of the winners and losers of this precarious moment. Among these winners and losers will be our foreign aid budget.

Perhaps the reason aid is at risk of being cut lies in our failure to communicate the great work our foreign aid does around the world. Not many outside the NGO sector know the scope of its work. But tucked away in the far reaches of http://usaid.gov, documentation awaits. And it’s revealing.

Just this past year, US foreign aid has worked to improve water and sanitation in Ethiopia, expand access to education in Madagascar, support activists seeking gender equality through democratic means in Lesotho, and has engaged in countless hundreds of other efforts that profoundly impact the lives of millions in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Again, donations to charity do translate into real progress. That’s good news: every year Americans give an internationally unparallelled 1.85% of our GDP in private charitable contributions — more than any other nation in the world per capita and in real dollars. But governmental foreign aid programs work with developing countries’ governments in ways that NGOs and charities simply cannot. That’s how we fight corruption and foster development worldwide, changing the systems that keep people trapped in poverty.

With such far reaching work, perhaps it is understandable that most Americans believe foreign aid consumes 27% of the federal budget, or 5.9% of GNI. The real numbers, as mentioned above: less than 1% of all federal spending and just 0.22% of GNI. That in mind, foreign aid might be the most “bang” Americans get for their buck across all federal programs, anywhere.

Our foreign aid is vulnerable now, but government ultimately answers to its people.

We need to make it clear: we, the American people, are collectively invested in the alleviation of poverty and the sustainable development of communities everywhere. We must let our representatives know that cutting foreign aid is off the table. We need to donate our voices by signing petitions and using social media to directly publicly lobby our representatives and raise awareness in our personal networks.

Our collective investment in ending extreme poverty and our determination to keep that commitment is the reason that our aid programs continue to give communities the tools to lift themselves out of poverty, and it comes from the American people.

Mitch Hansen is Online Communications Manager for Global Citizen and Global Poverty Project.