Very few Nebraskans interviewed mentioned foreign aid when asked about the ways in which U.S. foreign policy affected their economic interests. But, when prompted, several expressed a broad spectrum of opinions. Some believed the United States spent too little on aid. Others believed that the United States had to first address the considerable needs at home before it could do more for others abroad. The bigger debate, however, did not appear to be about the amounts the United States spent on aid but rather about who received it and how it was delivered.
Notably, the fact that more U.S. food assistance is now delivered in cash, rather than in kind, appeared to influence some attitudes on the subject. Nevertheless, it did not appear that those interviewed held any strong or uniform views about foreign aid and its connection with the economic well-being of America’s middle class when focus groups were conducted in 2019.
The bigger debate . . . did not appear to be about the amounts the United States spent on aid but rather about who received it and how it was delivered.
The context for discussions on foreign aid has dramatically changed since then, however, as a result of COVID-19, which originated overseas and rapidly spread around the world and across all fifty U.S. states. The spread has resulted in the worst public health crisis that most Americans have experienced in their lifetimes. In addition to threatening individuals’ lives and physical well-being, the measures required to contain the virus’s spread have totally upended Americans’ social interactions and way of life. And the economic consequences have been devastating, especially for middle-income households contending with business closures, lost wages, higher healthcare and childcare costs, and precipitous declines in their retirement savings. One can assume that, in the wake of this crisis, more Americans, including Nebraskans, could see a connection between the economic interests of America’s middle class and U.S. efforts to strengthen global health security systems to prevent the outbreak and spread of pandemic diseases.
Determining Foreign Aid Levels Based on What the United States Can Afford
When originally interviewed last year, long before the outbreak of COVID-19, many of those who expressed an opinion about foreign aid were not disputing that it served a useful purpose to advance American values and interests. The question for them was what the United States could afford.
While not many interviewees pressed this view proactively, there were at least some people who believed the United States could afford to significantly increase foreign aid. For example, an interviewee in Lincoln bemoaned that the United States’ international affairs budget had “continuously lacked, lacked, lacked [funds] for international aid, even though it is less than 1 percent [of the overall federal budget].” She believed it was important to highlight how relatively little the United States paid for aid, and what it got in return, so as to counteract the narrative that “we are just paying all of these countries to freeload off of us, and they come and criticize us.” As far as she was concerned, “I can’t imagine how much worse the situation would be for Americans abroad if we didn’t offer aid and assistance.”1
A focus group participant in Lincoln concurred that the United States was spending far less on aid than many Americans might realize. He disregarded the idea of balancing the national budget by cutting foreign aid because, as he stated directly, “foreign aid is less than 1 percent of our national budget.”2
Several focus group participants in Lincoln and Omaha, in general, conveyed that the United States needed a foreign policy that was not overly reliant on the U.S. military and employed other tools as well to promote U.S. values and interests, including foreign aid. As such, they were disinclined to reduce further what the United States now spent on it, especially given that foreign aid now occupied a relatively small share of the federal budget.
Others, such as a focus group participant in North Platte, contended that the United States was spending as much as it could afford and could not afford to do more. “I’m a firm believer in helping the needy . . . but we need to get ourselves in the right financial position before we can help everybody else, too.”3 A business leader in Lincoln likewise indicated that, rather than increasing foreign aid, “I would be more in favor of making sure we take care of people here in the U.S., you know, people that are in poverty in the U.S.,” though the person qualified that statement by also saying, “but I don’t know the magnitude of the various programs.”4
Determining Whether Foreign Aid Is Serving the Right Objectives
There were other focus group participants who, when originally interviewed, spoke less about what the United States could afford and more about whether it was spending whatever it did on the right things. One participant in Lincoln, for example, favored lending a hand to democratic governments that sought to assist their people. He noted that considerable U.S. aid was directed toward enabling nondemocratic regimes to purchase U.S. weapons. He said, “We are creating dictators, we are creating repressive forces, and of course that’s not an official policy, you don’t see it on the State Department or on the Defense Department websites but that’s what’s happening. We are buying allies with tanks, missiles, military. To me, that’s a terrible aspect of foreign policy.”5
A focus group participant in North Platte echoed a similar concern about who was actually on the receiving end of U.S. aid. “The argument is well, if you can do things to help the really starving people in Honduras, they won’t want to immigrate to the United States. I’m not convinced that that’s going to be the case. The real problem there though is that if we knew the foreign aid was going into the hands of the people who needed it, that would be one thing, but why would any of us believe that [Venezuelan President] Nicolas Maduro or any of these other foreign dictators are going to take out foreign aid and put it where we want it to be. That’s the real challenge.”6
In a similar vein, an interviewee in Scottsbluff/Gering suggested that, in the United States, foreign aid had “gotten a bad reputation because we seem to be, in some instances, supporting governments that are sort of contrary to our image of government, but we do that to ourselves.” That was unfortunate, in his mind, because he actually wanted to be spending more on promoting global health, arguing that “we’ve got a tool here that we can use that ought to lift our boat as well as theirs.”7
Preserving In-Kind Food Assistance
While many of the views noted above on foreign aid could just as easily be heard elsewhere around the country, a distinctive feature of the discussion in Nebraska pertains to food assistance, as some state officials reminded. Under in-kind food assistance programs, the U.S. government purchases surplus grains and other agricultural products grown at home to deliver to countries abroad.8 It ships the grain on U.S.-flagged vessels. Proponents of these in-kind food assistance programs stress that they translate into U.S. jobs. Nebraska’s agricultural and transportation sectors have been among the beneficiaries. One state policymaker indicated that in-kind food aid is good for Nebraska because it provides a clear destination for its surplus produce and, in certain instances, is more likely to get to the intended beneficiaries than cash assistance.9
Historically, all U.S. international food assistance was provided exclusively in-kind. However, over the years, humanitarian and development experts have criticized in-kind assistance for taking too long to reach recipients in need and for entailing high shipping and storage costs. They note that it is difficult to deliver this aid in conflict situations, where the needs are especially great. These experts have questioned whether such aid is delivering the nutrition recipients require or aligning with their dietary preferences. And they point out the negative effects it can have on local markets in developing countries. As a result, many international donors have converted their food assistance primarily to cash-based assistance.10
The United States still primarily delivers in-kind food assistance, but it has steadily transitioned over the past decade toward providing cash-based assistance (through direct cash transfers or food vouchers) as well. This move has been welcomed by international development experts as a step in the right direction. Here in the United States, however, reactions on Capitol Hill have been more mixed.11 Even if not optimal in all instances from a development perspective, in-kind food assistance programs have a strong coalition of support for them, including in Nebraska.
A business owner in the Scottsbluff/Gering area explained how food aid programs helped Nebraskans at home:
“The dry edible beans that [are] our principal crop out here are very much used around the world. In fact, you know, the Middle East is one of our largest markets besides Mexico for these dry edible beans and so when it comes to Food for Peace type programs, the consumption of those beans is very important to maintaining pricing out here. So the most food aid programs usually consist of a lot of beans and so it’s [a] positive impact on our bean prices.”12
Thus, some state officials interviewed worried that a more pronounced transition away from in-kind food assistance could therefore further erode support for foreign aid, at least in parts of the state.13
A Desire for Evolutionary Not Revolutionary Changes in Foreign Aid
As in the case of U.S. trade policies, it seemed that, on balance, the Nebraskans interviewed were favorably disposed toward long-standing approaches to U.S. foreign aid. While there were those who favored increasing or decreasing the levels of assistance, for different reasons, they were the exception rather than the rule. The bigger concern was over the United States’ making an even bigger shift away from in-kind food assistance toward cash-based assistance. In this respect, the discussions on foreign aid in Nebraska were quite distinct from those in Colorado and Ohio.
1 S. Ahmed, T. Abdel-Monem, J. O’Donnell, D. Rosenbaum, and J. Walther, interview with a business owner, Lincoln, July 9, 2019.
2 Focus group conducted by T. Abdel-Monem, S. Ahmed, J. O’Donnell, D. Rosenbaum, and J. Walther, Lincoln, July 9, 2019.
3 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, J. O’Donnell, E. Thompson, and J. Walther, North Platte, July 24, 2019.
4 S. Ahmed, J. O’Donnell, J. Walther, and D. Rosenbaum, interview with a resident, Lincoln, July 9, 2019.
5 Focus group conducted by T. Abdel-Monem, S. Ahmed, J. O’Donnell, D. Rosenbaum, and J. Walther, Lincoln, July 9, 2019.
6 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, J. O’Donnell, E. Thompson, and J. Walther, North Platte, July 24, 2019.
7 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, J. O’Donnell, E. Thompson, and J. Walther, Scottsbluff, July 23, 2019.
8 Congressional Research Service, “U.S. International Food Assistance: An Overview,” December 6, 2018, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45422/1.
9 S. Ahmed, J. O’Donnell, J. Walther, and D. Rosenbaum, interview with a state official, July 8, 2019.
10 Congressional Research Service, “U.S. International Food Assistance: An Overview,” December 6, 2018.
12 S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, J. O’Donnell, E. Thompson, and J. Walther, interview with Owen Palm, 21st Century Equipment, Scottsbluff, July 23, 2019.
13 S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, J. O’Donnell, E. Thompson, and J. Walther, interview with resident, Lincoln, July 8, 2019.