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Workers unload a shipment of emergency medical supplies from USAID in Bangladesh (US Embassy Dhaka via Wikimedia Commons)

How the US Senate Completely Misunderstands USAID 

The agency's budget makes up less than half a percent of federal spending.

Words: James Chabin
Pictures: US Embassy Dhaka

When United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power visited Capitol Hill to discuss the President’s FY 2025 budget request last month, members of Congress quarreled on several issues but remained faithful to one tenet: the United States cannot afford to do all the humanitarian work it would like to do in the world. This may be true, but the limited nature of the US reach is largely unrelated to discussions around funding an agency that makes up 0.21% of the federal budget.

In March 2023, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho, set the tone for the GOP discourse on international development spending, calling the then proposed foreign assistance budget “completely untethered from reality.” 

Risch took a similar tack this year. During Power’s Senate testimony, Risch opened the session by regretfully stating that “the pressures on the international affairs budget have become too great” and that “difficult choices” would have to be made to prioritize certain programs. 

Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, echoed this concern, saying that “we don’t have enough money to get everyone out of poverty” and pointing out that the US no longer accounts for the share of the global economy it used to, limiting the US government’s ability to fund global initiatives. 

Geopolitical Concerns

While the United States may not be able to end global poverty, there is no reason for Congress to feel the administration’s request for $42.8 billion towards foreign assistance represents an unreasonably high sum. After all, Risch, Romney, and many of their colleagues recently voted in favor of a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, demonstrating a willingness to spend taxpayer money for security and geopolitical concerns. 

If Romney thinks China’s international spending is more strategic than the United States, a robust USAID budget should be an obvious policy goal for him.

To his credit, Senator Romney’s statements during the committee hearing last month were ideologically consistent with his vote on the Ukraine aid package. Romney expressed his desire that the United States prioritize aid projects that fit the national interest, citing the Chinese approach to international development as a successful example. Romney pointed out that China’s global spending is not “anywhere near” that of the United States and argued that what China does spend “support[s] Chinese interests.” 

If Romney thinks China’s international spending is more strategic than the United States, a robust USAID budget should be an obvious policy goal for him. While the United States spends more in the world than China when military spending is included, China’s international development spending outpaces USAID. Although Chinese development spending is notoriously clandestine, preliminary data shows that, in 2023, China spent nearly double the proposed USAID FY2025 budget on its Belt and Road Initiative alone. 

Border Issues 

While Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, shares Romney and Risch’s concerns about international spending, he voted against the Ukraine aid bill last year, demonstrating a distaste for defense spending as well. 

In his statement on the foreign aid budget request, Cruz reminded Administrator Power that USAID would “receive and spend taxpayer money” before addressing concerns over Gaza aid. Cruz’s concern over international spending stems from concerns over an underfunded US-Mexico border dealing with large levels of migrants. 

Cruz is consistent in wanting taxpayer money to stay home, but it does not take much to see how an increased budget for USAID in Latin America would alleviate the pressure on the southern border. 

In her testimony, Samantha Power pointed out that countries such as Colombia, Brazil, and Peru are actively integrating Venezuelan migrants with the support of USAID, including through degree accreditation and migrant centers funding in border regions. She also discussed how USAID leverages “development diplomacy” to keep migrant centers open in host countries, ensuring that migrants receive resettlement with full legal protection before they make the dangerous journey to the US border. 

Members of Congress should always be careful with taxpayer money, but there is no reason to be stingy with USAID, which provides win-win scenarios for US citizens and foreign nationals while operating at a budget of just over .01% of that of the Department of Defense. The world will always have more crises than the United States can handle, but there is no question that we can afford to do more than we are doing now. 

James Chabin

James Chabin is an MA candidate at the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University in Nagoya, Japan. He has work experience with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the Wilson Center and has written on development for the Diplomat, Global Americans, the Geopolitics, etc. You can follow him on X/Twitter @JamesChabin.

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