In defense of ‘non-defense’: spending on foreign aid helps the Triangle

Foreign assistance provided by the U.S. Government has a negative stigma attached to it these days, with the Trump administration expressing interest to scale back current efforts. However, many are unaware how foreign assistance impacts their own community.

I grew up in Raleigh and graduated from NC State (Go Wolfpack) in 2004, spending those years in my mid-20s with the belief that federal-level policy made in Washington around foreign assistance was far removed from the daily lives of the people I grew up around. Although I moved away in 2005, North Carolina is a place I care deeply about because my family is still there and it is and forever will be home.

After a long road, I am now a science policy fellow working in Washington to create and implement the policies and programs that once confused me. Working in this capacity has made me realize the wide-ranging implications that federal policy around foreign assistance has on the livelihoods of North Carolinians and the need to showcase its importance.

Investment in foreign assistance protects our nation and saves American lives. Take the 2013 Ebola outbreak in West Africa for example. This epidemic was one of the deadliest outbreaks of Ebola in recent memory. It killed 11,310 people as well as devastated families and communities, livelihoods, and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses we face with ever-increasing globalization. Internationally, fears were raised that the disease could spread overseas, including to the U.S.

To help contain and end the spread of this highly infectious and deadly disease, the U.S. successfully partnered with numerous other countries and organizations to provide technical assistance and resources under the umbrella of foreign assistance. Ultimately, this prevented an Ebola pandemic. Infectious diseases, like Ebola or Zika or Malaria, could devastate American lives if left unchecked and we must work to contain these threats at their source. By working to contain these diseases abroad, we reduce the chance that they will make it to our shores.

Moving forward, organizations in the Triangle, such as IntraHealth, RTI International, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Duke University are utilizing funding provided by foreign assistance to strengthen the health systems of countries abroad. These strategic investments will prevent epidemics, save lives, and protect us at home.

Foreign assistance spending is also important for the economy of North Carolina. During the Ebola outbreak, a portion of U.S. foreign aid was budgeted for research and implementation purposes to a range of academic, nonprofit, and private sector partners located right here in the Triangle, including those previously mentioned. Thanks to non-defense spending, including foreign aid, folks here in our own state work to protect American interests while also earning their livelihoods.

Overall, foreign assistance makes up less than 1 percent of our federal budget. The Trump administration has sought to reduce nondefense discretionary (NDD) (including foreign assistance) spending and increase money for direct defense. Cuts to NDD spending include agencies that lead foreign aid investments, such as the US Agency for International Development and State Department.

North Carolina benefits significantly from defense spending and we are indebted to our Armed Forces and to those who serve in them. My brother served in the Army and did a tour in Iraq, so I have seen firsthand the hardships (and opportunities) that come with serving our country. However, we cannot discount the importance of non-defense spending, particularly foreign aid, to North Carolina’s economy, or to our nation’s ability to protect itself from the effects of disasters abroad.

Congress, the branch of government that has the power of the purse, will soon allocate financial resources for both defense and nondefense spending. I sincerely hope they recognize that strategic investment in non-defense spending is just as critical as defense spending in saving lives and creating jobs right here in North Carolina, the state I will always call home.

Dr. Sutyajeet Soneja is a public health expert and a 2016-2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow.