Why Must Foreign Aid be so… Foreign?

Such is the implicit theme of the opinion piece from Beijing’s People’s Daily that will constitute this week’s visit to the Eastasian metropole. Of course, the specific theme is most overt Japan-bashing, particularly over Japan’s determination to phase out development aid to China by 2008. Despite being a vibrant economic powerhouse running unbelievably huge trade surpluses with this country, China is still, in many ways, a desperately poor country which appreciates the foreign largesse it receives.
The implication, of course, is that foreign aid should simply be guided by a spirit of pure generosity in the first instance, because ultimately it pays dividends to both the donor and donee country. There is much to this, of course, but at a governmental level, it is poppycock. The government of any nation is in the business of advancing the interests of that nation. There are times when appearing generous for its own sake advances that nation’s interest. But the People’s Dailly implication is incorrect: foreign aid is precisely a political tool. Otherwise, what excuse is there for the taxpayers of a given nation to fund it?
That said, I’m sure most Americans have no idea that our foreign aid (not counting our military “generosity” of course) runs well under one per cent of the federal budget (just as “welfare” runs well under one per cent of the federal budget, and wasn’t all that much more than that even before Clinton signed a law ending welfare as we know it.) But our foreign aid is spotty, and tied up to various weird parochial concerns (such as restrictions tied to anything involving abortion).
In my view, the easiest form of universally valuable foreign aid is simple: eliminate (a 3 year phase out will be fine) all American domestic agricultural subsidies. ALL OF THEM. EVERY SINGLE ONE. “Agri-business” will fire its K Street lobbyists and start over, thinking of other gimmicks. And this plan is inconceivable politically, even though such programs to help a very small group costs U.S. consumers over $11 billion just in higher prices, forgetting budget costs like implementing and administering the programs.
We’re charging ourselves higher prices for food commodities so that politically connected fat cats can rape the rest of us. But what has this to do with foreign aid, say you?
Well, it is well documented that the most likely sectors in the most desperately poor regions of the world (Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, parts of the Americas) is agriculture. Importing a steel industry or a chip-fabrication plant into Malawi or Niger or Haiti or Bangladesh is probably not going to do much good; but developing these nation’s agricultural sectors to the point where they can generate export crops would. A lot of good. And fast. Far better than even some of the most intelligently directed aid, actually.
But. We. Stop. It. Because. Of . Our. Agricultural. Subsidies. I personally believe that this is a failing of our Founding Fathers: the senate makes this country the possessor of one of the least democratic institutions on Earth– a body where around 14% of the nation’s population controls the majority of that body, and those states are overwhelmingly small and dependent on agriculture. And senators cannot possibly be seen to be caving in to sell out the interests of their state’s leading citizens and businesses (usually contrary to the interests of everyone else in the state, btw), and hence, they jealously hold on to their farm subsidy programs.
At the expense of not merely our own taxpayers, but at the expense of development all over the world, development that would eliminate poverty at its source, development that would reduce pressure that incites extremists who turn to anti-western violence for which we deploy trillions of dollars in defense costs… In short, our own out-dated political structure precludes us from taking the necessary steps to enable the world to develop in a way that advances our national security interests.
Both parties are guilty of this. This may be an appropriate time for an urban-based national third-party, whose intent is SPECIFICALLY to control enough House and Senate seats to quell excesses of farm states (most farm states are “red states”, but Iowa and the Dakotas jump out as states with Democratic senators who are just as problematic in these areas as any Republican.) I don’t know. But once again, we have a simple solution that would be win-win-win all around except for a few well-connected fat cats, which is why it won’t happen. Beijing, being capital of a vast dictatorship, doesn’t have to concern itself with issues like this…