On average, Americans think we spend about 25 percent of our federal budget on foreign assistance. The truth is we spend less than one percent.
The logo we place on the assistance we deliver abroad represents the generosity of our country; a handshake alongside the motto “From the American People.” But our assistance also derives benefits for the American people: it keeps our country safe and strengthens our economy, something I had the opportunity to see firsthand.
Last May, I visited our USAID mission in Juba and witnessed just how difficult life in southern Sudan was. Among the many sad realities of daily life in the region, one stood out: southern Sudan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
That fact wasn’t lost on me; I thought of my own wife, then pregnant with our third child. I knew that she would receive the best possible medical care and attention during her delivery. But in southern Sudan—an area with a population approaching 10 million—there were only about 350 trained midwives capable of addressing the deadly complications that can arise while giving birth.
For years, our mission in Juba had been working to reverse trends like these, while also strengthening local governing institutions. Now, six years after a devastating civil war, southern Sudan was preparing to vote for its independence. In an area far too familiar with political and ethnic violence, no one could guarantee the referendum would proceed peacefully, if it proceeded at all.
In August, five months before the referendum was slated to begin—when many were convinced it would not take place—USAID assistance made a crucial difference. We helped establish facilities for the referendum’s operations and secured voter registration cards; we even bought the pencils.
In cooperation with the United Nations, we trained south Sudanese poll workers to register voters and provided them with lanterns, so they could count ballots into the night. Meanwhile, American diplomats worked behind the scenes to ease tensions ahead of the vote.
That foresight—smart development investments coupled with effective diplomatic efforts—allowed voter registration to proceed smoothly and the referendum to occur peacefully and on-schedule.
The results of the referendum have since been officially counted, and the south Sudanese have shown their clear desire for independence. As a new nation is born, I’m proud to say USAID was there to support its safe delivery.
USAID deploys development specialists in places like southern Sudan today to strengthen democracies, rebuild livelihoods and build strong health and educational systems, so that we do not have to deploy our troops tomorrow. We provide humanitarian assistance for people affected by conflict in countries like Libya. And we strengthen civil societies in countries like Egypt, so we can help them pursue peaceful and credible democratic transitions. As Secretary Gates has said: “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.”
But we don’t just prevent conflict. We work to end it.
In the most volatile regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, USAID staff work side-by-side with the military. As part of our country’s civilian surge, we more than doubled our workforce in Afghanistan in order to support our troops in the field and help the Afghan people stand on their own.
Last April, I visited the Arghandab Valley to speak with local Afghan farmers. They expressed their appreciation that the American people had helped train them and provided them with seeds and fertilizer. They explained how that assistance had revitalized their community, boosted agricultural production and brought economic opportunity to a region our soldiers had suffered casualties to secure. As a result of our agricultural assistance local farmers shipped the first food exports out of the Kandahar airport in 40 years.
In North-West Pakistan—the current base of operations for Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban—our teams and partners face daily harm and have suffered casualties administering over 1,400 projects. In the Malakand district, they helped rebuild 150 schools, so children there could become productive members of their economy, instead of seeking an education in extremist madrassas.
As General Petraeus testified to Congress, the civilian efforts of the State Department and USAID “build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform.” USAID plays a critical role in consolidating peace, denying safe havens to Al Qaeda and helping to bring our troops home sooner. Without development resources, he said, we could “jeopardize accomplishment of the overall mission.”
Last December, I met with the next generation of America’s military leaders, diplomats and development experts at a class at the National War College, one of the United States military academies. The College has seen some of our sharpest military and foreign policy leaders walk through its halls, including General Wesley Clark and Senator John McCain. As I spoke to them about USAID’s role in global development, I asked them to look at this map.
This is the Korean Peninsula at night. The North is almost completely dark, except for one small dot in the top-left, the capital Pyongyang. But if you look at South Korea, Seoul is the brightest spot in a country full of light.
To me, this comparison represents the true power of development. Fifty years ago, South Korea was poorer than two thirds of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Its people had an average life expectancy of 54 years, and it was one of the largest recipients of American assistance in the years following the Korean War.
In the decades of engagement since, USAID supported South Korea’s agriculture and industrial sectors, helping the country focus intently on an aggressive growth strategy. Today, USAID no longer provides assistance to South Korea; instead, the country is a net donor of foreign assistance. And South Korea has now become a vibrant source of trade for America. It is currently the eighth largest market for American goods and services, ahead of countries like France and Australia.
I used to think our exports were mainly large goods sold by large companies, like commercial aircraft and automobiles. But it turns out 97 percent of our exporters are small- and medium-sized businesses, precisely the firms that serve as engines of American job growth. In fact, for every 10 percent increase we see in exports, there is a seven percent growth in American jobs. And exports to developing countries have grown six times faster than exports to major economies, representing roughly half of all U.S. goods and services sold overseas.
Increasingly, our economic prosperity will depend on selling goods and services to the 2-3 billion people in developing countries who will form tomorrow’s global middle class.
To win the future, we must continue to reach developing world consumers through innovative business models and targeted assistance, accelerating the peaceful rise of the markets they represent.