Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Land of Plenty Receiving Foreign Aid?

We Americans are a proud people, aren't we?

Even when it comes to such things as foreign aid, we believe we can make our planet a better place for all of us to live.

Except when money gets tight here at home.  Then it's every man for himself.

As the United States lurches through yet another economic malaise, right-wing Republicans have been trotting out a tired old schtick, railing against the amount of money our government spends in humanitarian relief work across the globe.

Invariably, when it comes to cutting our federal budget, foreign aid is the first expenditure conservatives want to ax.  Instead of our token contribution to humanity's global needs, foreign aid becomes a waste of hard-earned American dollars.  Why should we send all that money over to people in far-away countries who are either too lazy to work themselves into a better economic condition, or too ungrateful for our altruistic assistance?

Altruistic, indeed.

The Flip Side of One Percenters

Of course, the fact that only one percent of our entire federal budget goes to foreign aid has little impact on the popular idea that if we stopped helping fer'ners, we'd have all that extra money with which we could help ourselves.

Only, how many of us really want to spend more money on helping our fellow Americans?  We just want to get to keep more money for ourselves in the form of lower taxes, don't we?

Granted, many Americans already live paycheck-to-paycheck, and really could use lower taxes to make their own bottom lines go farther.  Nevertheless, our country enjoys a sizable and robust cohort of comfortably-wealthy taxpayers for whom saving tax dollars means they'll have more to hoard.

Hoard?  Now there's a nasty word.

Some pro-business conservatives claim that when rich people save money on their taxes, that's more money they'll plow into their companies so they can hire more people and develop more products.  Which, of course, ignores the role banks play in American business.  Not that saving money on our taxes is a bad thing, but saving money by cutting foreign aid will save each of us about 1% on our tax bill.  So maybe calling it "hoarding" is a bit harsh.

Still, 1% of our national budget is hardly chump change, is it?

Building Bigger Barns

Luke, the doctor who wrote a book of the Bible, tells us a parable Christ used to illustrate the problem of affluence.  There once was this rich man who was successful at farming.  He was so successful, he ran out of space to store his harvest.  So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.

And he said to himself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."

But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?  This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward Me."

Isn't it interesting how hoarding costs us money?  It costs us money to purchase larger and larger homes in which to store our ever-increasing inventories of expensive furniture, nicknacks, electronics, and clothing.  Many people call ever-increasing real estate portfolios investments, just like the rich farmer in Christ's parable surely did.  And you know what?  There's nothing intrinsically wrong in that!

Surprised?  This is not a rant against wealth, or even accumulating things.  But what does it say when we Americans, here in our supposedly "Christian" nation, have become so focused on our own money, that other countries are now coming to our financial aid?

Yup!  America's penny-pinching ways towards others may be catching up with us. 

Foreign Aid in Reverse

Perhaps you caught wind of the news that the United Arab Emirates donated $1 million to the beleaguered school district of Joplin, Missouri, after the city's devastating tornado.  The district had to scramble to replace facilities and textbooks for their high school students, whose campus was destroyed by the twister.  Providing laptop computers for each high school student was the most expeditious - and expensive - way to secure curriculum.  Money wasn't available from the city, the county, or the state of Missouri, but it was offered, no strings attached, from a little oil-rich oligarchy half a world away that wanted to plant seeds of goodwill in America's heartland.

The UAE is also completely funding a $5 million neonatal intensive-care unit at Joplin's iconic Mercy Hospital, which is being completely rebuilt, and never had such a facility before because of a lack of funds.


Turns out, for years, the UAE has quietly been helping to fund small charities such as a Baltimore food bank, a police benevolence association in New York, and four inner-city soccer fields from Miami to Los Angeles.  And it's not just the UAE - there's a whole Muslim fundraising arm called Islamic Relief USA that does charity work in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia, and... the United States.  It's an eerie feeling to look at the list of countries where they support relief efforts and see our country as the only First World nation, among so many other dismal, needy countries.  Food pantries, healthcare initiatives, and emergency response programs are among Islamic Relief USA's projects in our own backyard.

And speaking of emergency response, were you aware that nearly 100 foreign countries offered direct aid and even cash to the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?  Far too proud to accept much of it, the administration of George W. Bush turned down offers from Finland, Sweden, and France, and delayed accepting help from Russia, although offers from Cuba and Venezuela were, understandably, turned down on political principle.  Japanese citizens donated $14 million in private money, and even the tiny and impoverished country of Nepal donated $25,000.

Now, many Americans would scoff at what appears to be a paltry $25,000 from a country like Nepal, which probably receives far more than that in American aid each year.  And that, my fellow Americans, is where our problem lies.

Sure, $25,000 won't even buy a moderately-priced Honda these days, and even the $6 million spent by the UAE on Joplin, Missouri is a drop in their oil buckets of wealth.  But these countries are gladly looking for ways to help.  Help people in need, yes, and even help polish their diplomatic credentials.  The UAE makes no effort to hide their overall objective:  provide ordinary Americans with a reason to look favorably upon a religion and a region of the world most of us hold in derisive suspicion.  It's only fair, since they've learned that tactic from us.

Greedy Hoarders or Happy Helpers?

So, is currying favor with middle America by buying our appreciation during times of crisis simply a means to an end?  Maybe, and maybe not.  If you look at how the UAE is spending its charity dollars, they're being very specific and targeted, almost like the surgical strikes we've been inflicting on Afghanistan for years.  They're doing their research, finding opportunities where money isn't just unleashed on somebody's pet project, but actually put to sustainable and exponential benefit.  Not exactly the bad kind of irresponsible charity we conservatives are fond of claiming our own government supports.

But what's our real motivation as American taxpayers?  When we advocate for our own government to spend welfare dollars wisely, is it only because we want the genuinely needy to get the assistance they need?  Or is it because we're tired of paying for helping them?  Do we want the needy to get help so we don't have to give them any more money, or so they can benefit from a better lifestyle and all of the advantages economic self-sufficiency can bring?  And by extension, do we complain about the foreign aid our country doles out because we'd rather have that money spent on ourselves?

Sure, foreign aid dollars can significantly grease the wheels of international diplomacy.  But if that's all we're expecting from that money, maybe we shouldn't be complaining about what we think we're getting - or not getting - in return.

Have we Americans lost the right to boast about our global magnanimity?  True, we're still the most "generous" country by far, but if God looks at our hearts, does he see dollar amounts, or true large-heartedness?

Might we need to open our eyes and see that the fields are not only "ripe unto harvest," but that harvest is plentiful not only abroad, but right here in the good ol' US-of-A?

What good is building bigger barns for ourselves when other countries see lack and need outside the walls of those barns?

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