What a Romney administration might mean for US international aid spending

With the Romney-Ryan show now officially up and running, and polls suggesting it will be a close run race, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on what a Romney administration might mean for US international aid spending. The signals so far do not look hopeful for those who believe international aid is important and the US contribution vital.

Romney himself, speaking in a Republican primary debate last October, has signalled his own scepticism, saying: “I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid.” Interestingly, one of the stars of this Republican convention in Tampa (if not someone who reflects the current dominant ideological strand in the Republican party), Condoleezza Rice, has argued precisely the opposite:

I think if you make those arguments in the context of knowing that we know after 9/11 that our fate and the fate of even the poorest countries is inextricably linked, you can say to people: This is a 1% that is well spent, and lets them say that we’re not ceding the field to others.

But for more concrete details on what might happen to aid, we need to look to Vice-Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity 2012 budget (published in 2011) which puts some figures on what a new administration might seek to do. Unsurprisingly, defence is protected, but “non-security discretionary spending” will be reduced “to well below 2008 levels” (p.24) . International aid is not specifically mentioned, but the international affairs budget line is severely cut: from $52 billion in 2012 to just $37 billion in 2013, falling to $29 billion in 2016 before slowly rising again (p.68). As John Harris noted in Foreign Policy, “that is not a haircut; it is a beheading”. The 2013 budget seems to have reduced the scale of the cuts, although current levels would not be reached again until 2022.

Of course, it is a long way from here to the elections, and promises, pledges and commitments made during the long campaign trail may not survive the clash with political reality once in office. Nor, it must be acknowledged, is there a consensus amongst Republicans that cutting international aid is sensible or straightforward (although whether such critics of massive cuts can make the voices heard is another question).

Whilst this is ultimately a question for the US electorate (and unlike The Guardian I’ll leave it to the US electorate to decide who to vote for), there are serious implications for international aid spending globally. At a time when the outline of a post-2015 international development landscape is being plotted out, a substantial cut in a major source of aid funding would be a disaster.

And from a more parochial perspective, would a Romney win and subsequent decimation of international aid spending give heart to those in the British Conservative Party who are also champing at the bit to cut DFID down to size? One of the few bright points of the current British government is its commitment, in defiance of both public opinion and many of its own backbenchers, to maintain and increase UK aid spending.

The public backlash against international aid in a time of austerity is understandable. It is time the advocates of aid started responding more effectively to its critics, explaining just why it is important, effective, and why the global community as a whole needs to remain committed to increasing international aid spending in an effort to alleviate global poverty.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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