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Build a National Consensus on Development

To sustain support for the level of development activities essential for America’s interests, there must be a broad consensus among the American people regarding the importance of international development for America’s security as well as its values.

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To sustain support for the level of development activities essential for America’s interests, there must be a broad consensus among the American people regarding the importance of international development for America’s security as well as its values. Just as the vast majority of Americans broadly accepts the value of defense spending in protecting America—even though they may have differences on specific policies and programs—so must there also be a general agreement on the value of development assistance.

Building this consensus will require a concerted effort by a variety of advocates to educate both policymakers and the American public. Some of this is already happening. Defense Secretary Gates has made several speeches on this subject, as have other senior military leaders, among them the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen. USAID senior leaders have given speeches on particular aspects of civil-military cooperation in the development arena, such as regarding AFRICOM. Congress is beginning to hold hearings. Yet much more can be done.

Changing public perceptions of development’s importance to our national security is a task that requires presidential leadership. When the Commander-in-Chief makes an argument that helping others to be secure directly contributes to our own security, the nation will listen. Indeed, it was precisely this argument that helped President Truman push the Marshall Plan through Congress, and President Kennedy to push the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which created USAID. Raising this issue in the next State of the Union Address or making a presidential foreign policy speech would help introduce the concept of sustainable security to the American people and spark interest in the non-military instruments we need to strengthen this approach.

Presidential leadership must be followed by assertive public engagement on the part of civilian development agencies. No one can tell the story of America’s global commitment to sustainable development and its contributions to our security better than the people who do the work every day. Yet their ability to do so is restricted by Section 501 of the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (the Smith-Mundt Act), which functionally restricts the ability of USAID to use public dollars to tell its story inside the United States. This legislation should be amended or repealed so that USAID, just like the Department of Defense, can tell the American people about the value of its work and continue to build public support for it.

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