The moral imperative of humanitarian aid

The following commentary is based on remarks Mr. Hill presented on September 5 at a forum entitled “Reforming Aid, Transforming the World,” hosted by Global Washington at the University of Washington. For more information on Global Washington, visit:

“I think back to what Camus wrote about the fact that perhaps this world is a world in which children suffer, but we can lessen the number of suffering children, and if you do not do this, then who will do this? I'd like to feel that I'd done something to lessen that suffering.” —Robert F. Kennedy, in response to a question, a few weeks before his assassination, about how his obituary should read

From books to blogs, it has become fashionable to focus on the failures of foreign assistance. To be sure, there have been failures, and there is plenty of room for improvement.

That said, it would be a travesty to ignore what has been accomplished. In the early 1960s, preventable child deaths exceeded 20 million per year. In 2011, that number is around 8.1 million. While humanitarian aid may not have been the sole cause, I contend that it was a major factor in reducing these preventable deaths.

Before we take too much time celebrating this nearly 300-percent reduction, let’s examine the fiscal and political environment today. The federal budget deficit in the United States and the negotiations now underway could have a significant impact on global development. The political environment is much more contentious now than when I served as a senior official at USAID during the last Bush administration.

Here are three ways that we who care about the lives and livelihoods of people in the developing world can strengthen the bipartisan consensus that has built more effective and better-supported aid programs in recent years.

First, we should challenge ourselves and current opponents of aid to think deeply about what it means to keep our promises as a nation. Those promises include extending a helping hand to those less fortunate, whether they reside in Raleigh or Romania.

Second, we should focus attention on growing threats to civil society in the developing world by strengthening those government, business, and social service organizations emerging as true contributors to improving people’s lives. We cannot afford to undo any successes we now have to show.

Third, humanitarian agencies and the U.S. government should recommit themselves to a stronger, more strategic partnership in the planning and delivery of development assistance.

Making these three goals a priority can help rebuild a U.S. foreign aid consensus in Congress and the Obama administration. I cannot overstate the urgency and importance of such a consensus, especially against the pressing backdrop of concern about the U.S. national debt.

This is a real issue, and it is a moral issue. Currently, the United States has a national debt of more than $14 trillion. The debt limit was recently expanded to over $16 trillion. This equals roughly $55,000 per American, or $220,000 for a family of four.

We who believe in foreign assistance will lose credibility to the extent that we minimize the importance and reality of the debt crisis. This crisis is, in part, a moral crisis reflecting a lack of national fiscal discipline, with the potential of saddling our children and grandchildren with the price of our refusal to live within our means.

However, saving children’s lives is also a moral issue. The total International Affairs Budget -- which funds all U.S. foreign aid and diplomatic efforts, including running American embassies -- is about 1.4 percent of the total federal budget. And even this figure minimizes significantly how much we actually spend on poverty-reduction.

Consider these facts:

  • In 1960, the percentage of our gross national product (GNP) that was spent on foreign assistance was 0.54 percent; in 2008, after significant increases in foreign assistance in the previous several years, the percentage had dropped to 0.19 percent.
  • In 2008, the United States ranked 23rd among developed countries in the percentage of GNP spent on development assistance. Even if one adds in private contributions from foundations, individuals, universities, and corporations, we only rise to 13th place.

Allow me to put this into further perspective. International anti-poverty programs amount to about $15 billion per year, which is equal to 14 cents per day per American.

Moreover, these are some of the most cost-effective programs in the entire federal budget. With $10 for an insecticide-treated bed net, you can help save a life from malaria. For the cost of a pill, you can save the life of a child dying from malaria, pneumonia, or diarrhea. For the cost of a shot, you can prevent major illnesses like measles or polio. For $30 per year, you can help provide emergency food assistance during a time of famine.

Kent Hill, senior vice president for World Vision international programs, presents "The moral imperative of humanitarian aid" at a forum called “Reforming Aid, Transforming the World” at the University of Washington on September 5, 2011. Photo by James Sido.

World Vision and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working to make these points to Congress. Through our advocacy, we need to bridge the disconnect between public perceptions of foreign aid spending and actual spending. Many of you may be familiar with the recent Gallup polling suggesting that Americans believe some 25 percent of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign aid -- while they express support for a foreign aid budget of 10 percent. Actually devoting 10 percent of our federal budget to foreign assistance would represent a 20-fold increase.

Therefore, it is critical that Americans talk to their elected representatives about why they support these cost-effective, life-saving programs. You do not need to know all of the legislative details. Calling, writing, or asking to meet with your lawmakers is critical. They need to know their constituents care about these programs -- even during tough economic times.

Particularly during this time of partisan bickering and nastiness, it is essential that those of us who truly believe international development is a “strategic, economic, and moral imperative” -- as the 2010 version of the National Security Policy (pdf) states -- work together in a spirit of bipartisanship to defend foreign assistance. Also, it is important to not generalize about what “religious” voters do or do not support -- just as we cannot, and should not, generalize about what Democrats or Republicans believe. Building a bipartisan consensus on the critical importance of foreign assistance requires a spirit of collaboration, which, regrettably, is in short supply today.

Global poverty is such a big problem that the world’s wealthiest country (the United States), one of the world’s wealthiest people (Bill Gates), one of the world’s largest NGOs (World Vision), and the world’s largest church (the Roman Catholic Church) -- combined with United Nations organizations like UNICEF and the World Food Program -- cannot solve it on their own. We must work together and leverage our unique strengths to make a difference in the struggle to significantly lessen poverty and suffering, and to promote a more just and peaceful world.

For Christians, showing compassion is not just an option, but an expectation. As Jesus stated in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…”

Just weeks before his death, Senator Robert Kennedy noted that “…we can lessen the number of suffering children, and if you do not do this, then who will do this?"

That's a question as relevant today as it was in 1968.

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Send a message to your members of Congress. Ask them to preserve critical funding in the International Affairs Budget for life-saving global humanitarian programs. Though this budget makes up just 1.4 percent of the overall federal budget, it provides funding for programs that literally save lives around the world.

The United States spends about 14 cents per day per American on global anti-poverty programs. Is that enough? What are your views on the moral and spiritual imperatives behind humanitarian aid?


    I think that if our government is supposed to be an extension of what we, as a people, care about... then I certainly hope that 14 cents per day per American is not enough. As citizens of a country with so much collective wealth, we have a privilege of helping those who suffer greatly. Some people see it as a call, a moral obligation, a hassle or something we shouldn't bother thinking about... but I see it as a privilege. You mean... we as a nation GET TO save lives and bring hope to those in pain? Sounds like tax dollars put to good use.

    I'm not sure that I've ever really made the connection between the economic state of our country and how that can affect the life and death of so many people around the world. This was extremely shocking but enlightening to see the truth of how our careless actions as Americans may remove some comfort from our own lives but leave many people in other countries without food. I have to realize that as a citizen and voter in this country, I have an obligation and commandment to consider and care for the hungry and homeless that Jesus said to provide for.

    Global poverty is a huge problem and working together to help those in need is increasingly becoming important. Survivors of last week’s fire that killed more than 100 people in a Nairobi slum say they are lucky to be alive. As the government works to help and compensate those affected, the explosion ignites fresh debate about the safety of slums.

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    I am a Zambian female aged 21 studying at the University of Zambia. i really like your organization and what it is doing to the under priviledged in our country.

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