Column: Why foreign aid isn’t charity

Irish rock star and activist Bono, center, followed by Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, right, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 12, 2016, to testify before the Senate State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs subcommittee hearing on the causes and consequences of violent extremists, and the role of foreign assistance. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Irish rocker and activist Bono testified before committee members on Capitol Hill last week to underscore foreign aid’s role in national security. The most important thing for legislators to understand, as Bono pointed out, is that foreign aid should not be considered charity — and he’s right, especially in terms of the Middle East.

The conflict in Syria, which sparked when anti-government protests were met with deadly force by the Assad government, has cost the lives of more than 250,000 Syrians since 2011. Over 4.5 million have fled Syria as refugees, causing political divides in Europe and elsewhere over how to share the burden, and 6.5 million are internally displaced inside Syria.

A fragile cessation of hostilities in the Syrian conflict has been in place for almost two months, and while the pause in fighting has also allowed for aid to be delivered more widely throughout Syria, the investments in that aid should continue to grow.

One recent aid operation, which reached the city of Rastan, brought food and medicine to about 120,000 civilians; these increased investments will improve the quality of life for both refugees and people living within Syria’s borders. The convoy was also able to deliver equipment to improve the water supply and evacuate hundreds of wounded and sick people.

During an interesting primary race for the presidency, it’s important to step back and look at the way these investments in aid and opening up humanitarian access provide a new pathway to peace and stability in Syria and the Middle East.

As Bono and other members in the meeting pointed out, refusing to address the humanitarian crises for refugees and those in Syria would only encourage and continue to fuel the rise and traction of violent extremism.

How can the United States expect people in the Middle East to support or lead a movement towards democracy, capitalism or constitution-writing when the embodiment of American ideals on a global level partially does and may soon rely even more heavily on building walls, air strikes, deploying drones and carpet-bombing?

Terror and chaos fester in areas of poverty and little hope for a better life. Humanitarian assistance and infrastructure developments, if transparent and fair, are the best investments we can make in Syrian security, stability and the fight against violence and extremism.

Unfortunately, this extremely important aspect of our foreign policy accounts for less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. And as it stands, both leading Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, in opposition with some of their more moderate former opponents like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, think it should be done away with. Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, also warned that programs relating to foreign aid could face steep cuts in the committee’s meeting with Bono.

Foreign aid has to be considered a much more crucial part of our role in helping to rebuild and restore Syria and the Middle East, and defense and military leaders are asking for greater investment by American leadership.

By continuing to define the battle against extremism as a direct military conflict with ISIS, the United States loses grip on the larger goal of pushing humanitarian access to Syria or funds and resources to Europe and other countries in turmoil over how to deal with influxes of refugee populations.

Politicians must change the view that foreign aid works as some type of favor by the United States. Instead, this aid has should be recognized as a prominent tool for peacemaking and solving humanitarian crises, which can set the stage for political settlements to more easily take hold. Taking out threats with military power will only go so far when the people most in need are left neglected, unable to meet their own basic needs or even attempt to rebuild.

Foreign aid isn’t charity, and it won’t be the sole strategy to defeat ISIS or reestablish a legitimate government in Syria. Even still, it could be the most important resource we have for restoring agency and a better standard of living for refugees and other displaced Syrians — but it now requires a much bigger investment to help provide for change.


Bennett Cognato is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu. He tweets @BennyGlenny.