Today, we live in a world of unprecedented health and wealth disparities, and in a country in seeming retreat from its responsibilities to be a part of the solution to our most difficult global challenges. While our daily news cycle is dominated by Twitter pronouncements from Washington and Mar-a-Lago, the United Nations’ recent warning that the world faces the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945 goes largely unnoticed and unheeded.

The U.N. reports that more than 20 million people across the four countries of Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria face imminent starvation and famine, hoping to stir the world to action. Today in Haiti, where I write this, the U.N. has raised only 2 percent of the $400 million it estimates it will cost to eliminate the scourge of cholera, a disease that did not exist there until inadvertently introduced by the U.N.

It is in this context that the budget proposal coming out of the White House shows this administration’s priorities and values. In order to find the money for an unprecedented military buildup and for the construction of a huge wall between us and our neighbors, it proposes to make dramatic cuts in many other areas, including foreign aid and global health.

One reason that there has not been a big outcry about the proposed cuts to foreign aid is that a false narrative continues to be perpetuated: that we are giving away so much money at the expense and negligence of our own people’s needs. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that, on average, Americans believe that spending on foreign aid makes up 31 percent of the federal budget. Only 3 percent of those polled know that foreign aid actually accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending.

The president has made much of the fact that not all NATO countries are living up to their obligations in terms of military investments, but little is said about our respective humanitarian obligations. While it is true that the United States is the biggest contributor to foreign aid in real dollars, it ranks 20th in the world in terms of contributions as a percentage of gross national income.

Money spent on global health by wealthy nations is less than 1 percent of what we spend on our own health care. Given that, it is hard to see how global health and development expenditures are undermining our homeland needs. In fact, the proposal to drastically cut this support may be compromising the homeland security that the military buildup is purported to be addressing. Even the military elite see this underinvestment as destabilizing and dangerous for the U.S.

More than 120 retired generals and admirals recently signed a letter calling on Congress not to slash funding for foreign aid, stating their “strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.” Perhaps prophetically, Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress in 2013, as commander of U.S. Central Command: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” That calculation seems to be playing out with the current proposed budget, as foreign aid is slashed to augment the biggest military budget in the world: more than the next seven largest countries combined.

It is true that there is much to criticize about how foreign aid is implemented. As someone who is working on the ground in Haiti, I see that up close and personal. It is very complex and difficult work, and we need to get better at it as a nation. Along with the problems, I also see how well-applied resources make a huge difference in the health and well-being of so many people living on the other side of the wealth-health disparity divide.

Budgets, whether personal or federal, are true reflections of priorities and values, because they play out “where the rubber meets the road” in very concrete ways. I used to tell my kids that the true measure of a person is not how much money he or she makes, but how much positive change he or she makes in the world. The same can be said for countries: Truly great countries are good world citizens.

Fortunately, presidents don’t set budgets — they only propose them. With a closely split Congress, our senators can play an especially important role at this important juncture in making sure that the budget that is ultimately passed reflects our real values. Please join us in contacting your elected members of Congress and asking them to oppose the proposed drastic cuts to these essential programs.

Nathan Nickerson, executive director of Konbit Santé, is a Portland resident who has a doctorate in public health and lives half time in Cap-Haitien, Haiti.


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