Given how Congress so far has avoided making the necessary tough decisions to reduce the federal deficit, it should come as no surprise that both parties seem poised to cut foreign aid budgets. After all, a lot of Americans probably feel these are wasted expenditure, money blown on ungrateful foreign governments.
That sort of thinking not only is wrong, it is dangerous. A lot of foreign aid programs are important to national security, providing long-term benefits that enhance America's reputation even as they improve living conditions in a variety of ways. These budgets make up a scant 1 percent of all federal spending.
But, as it would be disingenuous to call for no cuts to aid budgets at a time when the nation must reduce drastically in all areas, we have a suggestion. Use the limited resources that remain to focus mainly on programs that aid education, and particularly the education of young women. We suggest investing in the Global Partnership for Education, formerly known as the Fast Track Initiative. This is a partnership of donors, private foundations and corporations, and other institutions. It requires strict accountability for money spent. The organization already has helped education projects in 45 struggling nations, including 24 in Africa, with great success.
The reason for this emphasis is clear. Nothing will benefit the next generation as much as educated mothers. Figures from the United Nations Population Fund show educated girls are less likely than others to contract AIDS, and that they and their children will be less likely to suffer from extreme poverty. A study by the Center for Universal Education found that each year of education beyond the third or fourth grade results in a 20 percent increase in wages and a 10 percent decrease in death from preventable causes. If women have six or more years of education, they are likely to obtain prenatal care and other assistance that will reduce the risks to themselves and their children in childbirth.
It should go without saying that the children of educated women would be less likely to be enticed by extremist philosophies that threaten the United States than would those raised in squalor by mothers who feel powerless and hopeless.
Despite these known benefits, a study by the RESULTS Education Fund and the Global Campaign for Education found that young women have a less than 50 percent chance of going to secondary school in 47 of 54 African countries. About 67 million young people in the world won't attend any school at all, and most of those are girls.
As a story in The New York Times made clear earlier this week, Congress is likely to add to the $8 billion in cuts the State Department and foreign aid budgets sustained earlier this year. The Republican House would reduce President Barack Obama's proposed budget for those areas by $12 billion, and the Democratic Senate would drop it by $6 billion. This would impact how the U.S. responds to disasters abroad as well as how it promotes democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It should not, however, stand in the way of helping young girls go to school, something for which the Global Partnership for Education is asking $375 million from the United States. That could be the best investment anywhere in the federal budget.