I was involved in international development work for about a month before I got the question. I’m sure you’ve heard it if you are in the same line of work. Or maybe you’ve just thought it to yourself—“Why are we sending all of these tax dollars overseas when there is so much we could do with it within the United States?” My husband was the one who actually asked me this, and although my knee-jerk reaction was to say something about human dignity, I wasn’t sure if that alone was going to cut it. We could certainly spend money in the U.S. for under-funded programs which support human dignity. For example: taking care of the expanding elderly population, which will increase to almost 20% of the total U.S. population by 2020.
Another response to the question is to say that U.S. dollars can stretch farther in developing countries. One of the reasons I started donating to UNICEF was because $40 can buy 200 doses of life-saving vaccines. (Awesome, right!?) But I’m not sure if I would advocate basing donation decisions on a purely utilitarian outlook. I doubt anyone would say I acted immorally if I decided to donate my $40 to a local food pantry which would only help 5 people. In fact, you could even argue that I have a greater obligation to the local food pantry because it falls within my circle of responsibility. This might make you think of Mrs. Jellyby if you were forced to read Bleak House at one point in your life. (I generally like Dickens, but not this one! Save a few hours of your life, and don’t read it, unless you can’t resist this free download).
However, talking about my ethical obligations, and the ethical obligations of the U.S. government (and the American people as a whole) are two different things. So instead of relying on my 30 days’ worth of work experience, I asked someone who might know better—S.K. DeDatta, retired associate vice president for international affairs and former director of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development. If you live in a hole or you have limited knowledge of international development history (like me when I started this job), you may not know who I am talking about. I will tell you the only two facts you need to know about S.K.: (1) his work on rice-production systems helped feed millions of people (he is mentioned in this Wikipedia article on the Green Revolution), and (2) he is married to a former Bollywood movie star (really).
Actually, that isn’t true. There is a lot more that you should know about S.K. For example, he has an answer to the question. When I interviewed him for an upcoming newsletter last month, here is some of what he had to say:
“This is a very important question for the taxpayers. We are using government money. You see, we are living in an interconnected world, and what happens in X country impacts the United States in every single way: economic, social, political, geopolitical—in every way we are interconnected. We are one of the, in fact THE, best in the world in terms of economic leadership. So if the U.S. thrives, the world thrives, if the U.S. is not doing well, the whole world goes down. . . We cannot export and increase our resources to the hungry people of the world. They don’t have the capacity to buy our goods and services. . . Secondly, a hungry world is a desperate world. [People] will go to war . . . which means the US could be negatively impacted. So, by helping them, we are really helping ourselves. It would be almost criminal if we are negligent of the rest of the world going hungry while we have all this abundance and don’t share it. I guess this kind of benevolence in helping others is very much American. It is the soul of America, that you cannot be just inward looking.”
S.K.’s answers helped me better understand the ripple effect OIRED’s work generates throughout the entire globe. It also made me think of one more response to the question. One of the reasons our world is like it is today, for better or worse, is due to the actions of our ancestors. I would like to think that S.K. is right, that not only is this aid self-serving, but that it is also a choice we have, to create a legacy of beneficence for our nation and ourselves.