Foreign Policy Digital

How to Save Foreign Aid in the Age of Populism

The idea of development assistance is under attack in western democracies. Pursuing economic justice at home and abroad, launching a new freedom agenda, and framing aid as innovation rather than charity can help end the backlash.

Around the world, extreme poverty has fallen, access to basic health care and education have risen, and deaths due to violence are at historic lows. Yet all is not well. Inequality within countries is rising, the number of forcibly displaced persons is at an all-time high, and climate change is exacerbating epidemics of drought, flood, migration, and disease.

These challenges require robust responses, but the political mood in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other wealthy Western countries has turned against spending on foreign aid. National interests, not global goals, seem the currency of the times. The win-win mindset inherent in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s invocation that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is today challenged by a Trumpian zero-sum mindset that appeals to America Firsters, Brexiteers, and nationalist, xenophobic, populist parties across Europe.

Foreign aid and international diplomacy are among the targets of this movement. Populist leaders both want to reduce aid and shift its purpose from helping the neediest abroad to more self-serving political and economic ends. President Donald Trump has repeatedly attempted to slash U.S. development assistance and to use it as a tool to reward allies and punish countries that vote against the United States at the United Nations.

Just last week, the White House froze up to $4 billion in aid already authorized by Congress in what many saw as an effort to suddenly repurpose the funds for Trump administration priorities. In the United Kingdom, the conservative press relentlessly attacks British aid spending while supposed advocates of Global Britain argue for abolishing the Department for International Development and returning to an era when aid was used to boost U.K. trade and contracts for U.K. firms.

There is an urgent case for a new political narrative and policy framework to support foreign aid in this age of anxiety.

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