As conversations regarding the debt ceiling escalate, I can’t help but worry about the current state of political banter and semantics, and more importantly, where that leaves essential funding for global health and foreign aid writ large. Yes, concessions will have to be made on both ends of the political spectrum, but that does not mean that moral principles ought to be relinquished. And one’s ethical ethos is by no means dependent on political affiliation. What’s right is right.
On July 27th, the House Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations is scheduled to start deciding where and how much to cut in next year’s budget. Most conversations and proposals amidst Congress focus the budget cuts on discretionary spending, where the International Affairs Budget sits. In other words, essential global health programs—vaccinating children worldwide, distributing life-saving ARVs, providing maternal healthcare and education, etc.—are all potentially on the chopping block for FY 2012.
Advocates for cutting such foreign aid initiatives argue that we can’t afford to continue to pay for these life-saving programs. But as President Obama reminded Americans at the Twitter town hall last week, the “tiny amount we spend on foreign aid” – less than 1% of the overall budget – has a “big impact” and is something we need to do, “even in tough fiscal times.” While most Americans have a skewed perception of foreign aid, assuming it makes up at least 25% of the federal budget, the reality is that foreign aid is a sliver of the budget that does in reality make a huge impact for the better.
More importantly, aid is not a Democrat or Republican issue. Let us not forget that the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), America’s biggest bilateral global health initiative, was created by President George W. Bush and reauthorized by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress in 2008. Moreover, just two weeks ago, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida declared, “Aid is not the reason why we have this growing debt” and in fact lauded its benefits. So in a world where most foreign nations are angry with the States for a vast number of legitimate reasons—the impact of the American housing bust and recession, the U.S. presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lybia et al., and general cultural faux pas carried out by the best of us—shall we not at the very least attempt to maintain our few “good” legacies that save lives daily? Foreign aid is an American issue, not a political one.
Additionally, the current FY 2012 negotiations threaten the mentality behind aid entirely. As Obama urges congressional leaders to consider far-reaching debt-reduction plans, forcing Democrats to accept major changes to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid in exchange for Republican support for fresh tax revenue, the very core philosophy of health as a human right and the governmental role in helping the underserved risks being undercut. While the “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill that Republic leaders in the House announced on July 15th will leave Medicare largely shielded, it still leaves Medicaid heavily exposed. The bill, which the House is likely to vote on next week, would place a cap on federal spending at 19.9% of the gross domestic product. While Medicare would be exempt from the cap, along with Social Security, veterans benefits and interest on the debt, Medicaid and all other low-income entitlement programs such as food stamps are not exempted, which means they would likely face steep cuts in order to reach spending targets.
This is terrifying news. The America that I however naively believe my generation will fight for is one that allows everybody, however underprivileged, the opportunity to live a free, happy, and most importantly, healthy life. The problem with this era of modernity that I regrettably find myself living in is that politics has become a game, one scarily shaped by media sharks and self-promoting, though admittedly charismatic politicians. Surely concessions will be made in the next few weeks, for congressional leaders are at the very least united in the front to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its debt, which the Treasury Department claims could happen as soon as August 2nd. But can and will we avoid defaulting while still maintaining an ethical understanding of what’s right and wrong? Or has politics entirely lost sight of such morality and indeed grown rather nonchalant about the strategies taken, cutting the deficit on the backs of the global poor, those whose voices are not as loud nor present in the insular sessions of congressional bickering?
It is in this vein that I urge Akili’s readers to take a stand and maintain hope that there is in fact room for ethics in the political sphere. Last year as FY 2011 was under negotiations, I found myself interrupting President Obama in Bridgeport, CT and Boston, MA, adamant that cuts to PEPFAR and the Global Fund would not be made. Yes, I still have faith in the “hope” and “change” that I voted for and am empathetic for the messy societal burden, which Obama inherited. That being said, I firmly believe that everyone with an opinion on how our nation ought to be run must not risk staying silent, especially as Tea Party members and other radicals grow exponentially louder. Trust me, I never thought that a couple years after standing in awe amidst the masses of D.C. watching the Presidential inauguration, I would be interrupting his speeches and protesting. But now I’m here writing, urging you all to take similar action towards any accessible legislators that may influence the critical funding behind life saving programs both domestically and abroad.
For today President Obama urges Congress, “If the basic proposition is ‘it’s my way or the highway,’ we’re probably not going to get something done because we’ve got divided government.” While I agree that compromises must be made, I believe that there is a common moral ground to be found between Democrats and Republicans alike and there is room to rule by an iron fist of ethics, principles, and core political philosophies beyond pure pragmatism and appeasement.
Alyssa Yamamoto is a senior at Harvard College, concentrating in the Comparative Study of Religion, with a secondary in Government. Her summer blog, “Keeping Promises to the Global Poor,” will examine foreign aid for health in a period of financial instability.