Jon York

Why Elvis and foreign aid matter

September 5, 2017
Today, as some contemplate dramatic cuts to foreign aid and diplomatic missions around the world, we are in danger of diminishing our global influence.

A few weeks ago marked the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. That, and my brother’s untimely death earlier this year, have me thinking about foreign aid.

I’ll explain.

Elvis was a classic cultural export of American history. His unique style changed the way the world thinks about, sings and plays music.

Today, as some contemplate dramatic cuts to foreign aid and diplomatic missions around the world, we are in danger of diminishing our global influence. And that brings me to my brother, Shannon York.

Shannon and I grew up in Jackson. Like any proud Tennessean, we were steeped in music, including Elvis. We lived a relatively sheltered life. Our mom, a hardworking nurse, preferred we stick close to home in our backyard.

Shannon’s backyard later became the wider world when, in his 20s, he began working for Internews, an international nonprofit organization that trains journalists in developing nations and seeks to bring “voices to the voiceless” through local independent media. He traveled to nearly 40 countries — his goal was 50 by age 50 — before he died of an undiagnosed heart condition at 45.

He might not have been Elvis, but his infectious optimism, unflappability and intense interest in bridging cultural gaps to improve lives in desperate countries represented some of the best that America has to offer.

Programs and projects around the world — from health care services to infrastructure to education — are now in jeopardy. The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are facing deep fiscal cuts. That means fewer Americans at embassies overseas. Fewer American experts providing technical know-how in terms of water and sanitation systems. Fewer Americans helping to set up transparent election processes.

These programs provide stability to countries before they spill over into threats that harm us here at home. If not for such aid, Ebola could have wiped out thousands in the United States. Countries that have been on the verge of collapse have avoided becoming terrorist havens. Nations in Asia, Europe and South America that once struggled have now become strong allies and trading partners.

These cuts will be felt right here in Tennessee, which is clearly part of the global economy. After all, trade supported 857,200 jobs in 2013, or 23 percent of total jobs, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a non-partisan group that tracks the effects of foreign investment. Another 134,500 people in Tennessee are employed by companies that are at least 50 percent foreign-owned. Tennessee exports an astonishing $32.4 billion in goods to foreign markets.

We send some 6,000 of our students abroad each year to study, and the nearly 10,000 international students enrolled in Tennessee colleges and universities contributed $289 million to our state’s economy. Since 1961, 1,791 Peace Corps volunteers from Tennessee have served in dozens of countries overseas, truly epitomizing our nickname the “Volunteer State.”

Luckily, Tennessee’s two most powerful voices in Washington have a say in the way we go as a nation. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) serves as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, while Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) serves on the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

“The 1 percent that we spend on diplomacy and assistance, if we spend it wisely, then the expectations are that the men and women that we love so much in uniform are less likely to get into a hot war or in harm’s way,” Corker said in April while visiting a refugee camp in Uganda for people fleeing violence in South Sudan.

On July 25, I sent a letter to Corker signed by 73 Tennesseans in support of foreign aid. The list of signatories included attorneys, professors, first responders, nurses, musicians and small business owners — in other words, a cross-section of Americans, all of whom believe we are stronger as a nation when we engage the world, rather than shrink from it.

The importance of my brother’s work has become increasingly apparent since his passing. The rise of information manipulation, suppression, and fabrication in the digital world is truly a worldwide problem and one that affects all Americans. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we must confront and protect against, for our own sake.

America’s fierce loyalty to transparent societies and an inherent distaste for corruption are values worth exporting. We can’t do that without a foreign aid budget.

If my brother were alive today, he’d be the first to recognize Elvis’ contribution to the world. He’d be the first to say we all have an Elvis inside us, who can make the world a better place.

Jon York is an attorney in Jackson, Tennessee.