Let’s talk a little about Foreign Aid and why I think it’s important (and why I’m here).
Foreign aid and the work that USAID and its partners do directly contributes to our security at home, which is a fact that is widely accepted by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The way USAID has explained the national security strategy (in a simplified form) to its employees is a “3-D strategy” (bear with me here). But I’m not talking about 3 dimensional; I’m talking about the three Ds: Defense, Diplomacy, and Development, and they are each equally important. The Department of Defense pretty well covers the “Defense D”, needs little explanation, and is known as “hard power”. “Diplomacy” is centered around building diplomatic relations with other countries and governments, a form of “soft power”. The more friends and allies we have around the world, the safer we are. The “Development D” goes largely unnoticed, uncredited, and is largely misunderstood, although it also plays an important role in keeping Americans safe as any of the other two Ds (and is also a form of “soft power”). A very simplified answer to the query “Why is ‘soft power’ important?” is: because it allows the American government to get what it wants (peace, stability, etc.) without the higher expense (in capital, resources, people) of war.
The idea is that by helping other countries build up their economies, workforces, democratic institutions, and general capacities across the board to provide for their citizens, there will be less uprisings, coup d’états, strikes, and other internal conflicts. For example, if a country’s economy is growing, there are more jobs and less unemployment. Many developing countries’ populations are mostly both young and unemployed, and in frustration, they might lead uprisings/protests/etc., which can lead to internal instability that can spill over into neighboring countries or regions (think: Arab Spring). This ripple effect helps to show development is important. Many Americans believe that this portion of the Federal budget is upwards of 20%, but it’s actually less than 1%, including State Department’s work. Some day I’ll try to do a post or series of wonky posts about different reasons for or history of foreign aid–but this is what you get for now.
When H and I volunteered with the Peace Corps, we joined knowing we were going to be sent someplace really poor. Our daily lives would be challenging but the rewards would be great and we’d get our chance at helping people at a grassroots level. Our experience living in a town in Benin for over 2 years left a lasting impression on us that has fundamentally shaped the direction of our lives. Before joining the Peace Corps, we always knew we wanted to do the Foreign Service, but we had out sights set on the State Department’s foreign service, or the “Diplomacy” part of those 3 Ds (in fact, prior to Peace Corps, USAID wasn’t even on our radar as an option). As I mentioned above, this “D” is just as important as the others, but after having that hands-on experience in development, it undoubtedly was the new lit-up path that we sought out.
Our choice of the “Development D” means that we will never be posted in Paris, Hong Kong, Athens, Santiago, or other places that you associate with the “Diplomacy D”. That’s not to say there aren’t more difficult posts with the State Department (their post options include all of ours) or great posts with USAID; we think all of the posts offer their own exciting adventures and there are even limited posts in Germany, South Africa, Thailand and other places that are very developed and act as a regional hub. But don’t get your hopes up for these posts because more often than not, we will be spending our time in one of the poorest countries of the region to where we are sent. There may be real security concerns, malaria, political instability, natural disasters, and other things that may make our loved ones uneasy, but these are also the places where we are needed the most, where many people are poor, and sometimes heavily rely on the support and assistance that we give them to get on their feet and start towards a path of prosperity.
All this is to say that this is the way we are choosing to continue to serve our country after Peace Corps. Some people choose the military, some choose to run for an elected office, but we are choosing to go to the hard places and to work towards making those places better and more stable so Americans are safer at home. Additionally, we have this crazy idea that, by essentially winning the “lottery of life” by being born and raised in America, we have a moral imperative to help those abroad who never had that fortune. We aren’t doing it for the free (and often very nice) housing, the cheap help we can hire, the travel opportunities, or any of the other great benefits this path offers. Those are all really amazing perks that we will definitely enjoy, but they’re not what motivated us to join. This lifestyle is challenging and its a sacrifice for the whole family. From uprooting our kid(s) every 2-4 years and making them start all over again with schools and friends, to having limited movement in the country, to having to be on antimalarials for years at a time and the physical toll that takes on your body, to the con that you can’t get away from: being away from all our friends and family for the rest of our career–and I stress career, because this isn’t just another 2-year journey…this is a career-long change to our lifestyles. But we feel the contributions we can make are worth the sacrifice and are excited to be continuing our work in this “D”.
We will know where we’re going very soon and are excited about all the different prospects of where it could be, but it won’t be Paris. We hope we still get visitors though, wherever our plane lands.