Why should Maine care if — as some in Washington propose — foreign aid is cut by 30 percent?
The answer is simple: Maine’s economy and our nation’s security have become more dependent on the rest of the world than ever before.
Foreign aid accounts for only 1 percent of the federal budget. Yet these funds help us combat terrorism, halt the spread of disease and create markets for our world-class exports. Cutting 30 percent of 1 percent doesn’t leave much.
As U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said in February, “If you talk to our top military officials, they’ll always tell you that the State Department programs are a form of soft power and are really important as well.” Then-Gen. James Mattis, now U.S. secretary of defense, put it bluntly in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Mainers understand that soft power — building bridges across cultures and nations — makes us all stronger. In 2013-2014, 1,672 Maine students studied abroad. During 2015, 1,354 international students enrolled in Maine colleges and universities, contributing $50 million to the Maine economy. Since 1961, 1,877 Peace Corps volunteers from Maine have served in dozens of countries.
We are lucky to have a proud list of Mainers who, like Collins, have long helped our state punch above its weight in international affairs and global security. After all, Maine raised political legends such as Margaret Chase Smith, Bill Cohen and George Mitchell. And we’re also the home state of 10-year-old Samantha Smith, who became “ America’s Youngest Ambassador” when she wrote a letter to the Soviet premier at the height of the Cold War. We may be tucked up into the Northeast corner, but the influence of our residents, elected leaders and products spans the globe.
This includes our own work with Internews, an international nongovernmental organization where we serve as board member and president. For 35 years in more than 100 countries, Internews has worked to improve access to information through objective news and information in the developing world. Lack of such information leads to everything from the spread of diseases, such as Ebola, the radicalization of young people, or political instability that destroys the economy of our trading partners.
We also have an enormous economic incentive to continue our assistance: Eleven out of America’s 15 largest trading partners were once recipients of our foreign assistance, according to InterAction, a Washington, D.C.-based alliance of nongovernmental organizations. Here in Maine, the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition reports that global engagement has meant that our trade-related jobs grew a stunning 26 percent between 2004 and 2014, compared to a paltry 0.4 percent growth in Maine’s overall economy. In other words, Maine’s international trade and global engagement has kept our state from slipping into negative numbers.
The world wants our seafood, our wood and even our technology for use in aerospace and electronics. A Finnish company just announced a joint venture in Brunswick to build seaplanes. Maine’s exports to countries as diverse as China and Iceland are expanding. The 1 percent in foreign aid isn’t just about helping those less fortunate than we. It also includes supporting Maine exports through programs such as those run by the Export-Import Bank. Companies as diverse as textiles from Auburn and lobsters from Trenton have benefited from such financing.
Foreign aid helps make America stronger by both helping our economy and containing threats from overseas. In a world made small by the internet and airplanes, we cannot hide from the problems of other countries. When our trading partners are weakened because their societies are fragile and susceptible to extremists, it hurts us. When local health systems cannot contain epidemics and pandemics, it hurts us.
Generosity of spirit is endemic to Mainers. It is a worthy spirit. But in today’s world, where people justly want accountability for every dollar spent by our government, it is important to recognize that by helping others we also help ourselves by generating opportunities for growth and development and reducing threats to our security.
Richard Kessler is the former staff director for the Senate Homeland Security Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee. He also is a board member of Internews. He lives in Bath. Jeanne Bourgault is the president and CEO of Internews. She lives in East Blue Hill.