Foreign aid debates – it’s not all about me

By Joy Portella —

I’m a moral argument girl.

I get queasy when I read persuasive pieces about how the United States and other wealthy countries should provide international assistance because it increases our national security or provides jobs back home. Here’s a recent article that illustrates that line of thinking.

I know that framing is likely to make more Americans care about people and problems in distant corners of the world. And I understand that there is some truth behind it. Helping people in downtrodden places build secure, productive, prosperous lives makes the U.S. and the entire world more secure. It also nurtures markets that we can trade with and, especially in a city like Seattle, the business of international development and health creates jobs at home.

But I’m much more compelled by the moral argument that we should invest in aid because it’s the right thing to do. Because it is consistent with our American values of helping the oppressed and offering opportunity. Because I’ve seen extreme poverty and injustice up close and it is heartbreaking.

So I got queasy again last week when I read news about the London Family Planning Summit.

The Summit was a gathering of high-profile politicians, philanthropists, civil society leaders, and health experts to assess progress on and recommit to international family planning efforts. It featured the usual fare of big-deal global meetings: bold remarks by luminaries like Melinda Gates; enhanced commitments ($2.5 billion total) by donor and recipient countries alike; and the underlying drama/trauma of the Trump Administration’s refusal to fund family planning initiatives.

But behind all of the hoopla, there was one moment of the conference that underscored part of the motivation behind the growing Western generosity for family planning. The Danish Minister for Development Cooperation Ulla Tørnaes, in making a $15 million commitment to contraceptives in Africa, stated: “To limit the migration pressure on Europe, a part of the solution is to reduce the very high population growth in many African countries.”

It’s unclear whether Tørnaes made this statement to appeal to her fellow Europeans, who’ve been dealing with increased flows of migration from Africa and the Middle East, or specifically to her general public at home. Or perhaps she made a gaffe or was simply stating her take on the facts. After all, the youth population of sub-Saharan Africa is booming and their prospects for employment – a key motivator for migrants – are grim. Here’s more on Tørnaes’ statement and speculation on why it happened.

Whatever the intention, her framing points back to the idea that the Western world has to document a direct incentive or threat to make us care about other people’s problems. I don’t buy it. I think the premise is flawed and the resulting arguments are cheap.

What if, through some miracle, migration to Europe were no longer an issue. Would international family planning no longer be a challenge or concern? It wouldn’t change the plight of women and girls around the world who can’t access contraceptives and can’t control their own families and bodies. The injustice doesn’t go away just because it doesn’t inconvenience us.

I’d rather focus on how we can make the problems that plague people around the world – the poverty, the injustice, the lack of equity and opportunity – more resonant and relatable to people in wealthy countries. It doesn’t require a dangerous threat or a glossy reward, just more connection to the people who are dealing with these injustices daily. More connection can come through better and more honest storytelling, improved data, proof points on solutions that work, and linking the injustices in our own country to those around the world. These are all smart communication strategies that should get more of our attention and energy.

And none of these strategies require a lurking golem of global chaos, terror, or mass migration. Thinking that it does insults our very real and very strong humanitarian instincts.