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 Making Sense of a Crazy Mixed Up World

Helping Hand

At a time when America is sorting out its larger role in the world, experts remind us that U.S. aid is often much appreciated.

By Renee Gearhart Levy

Children running in front of USAID sign

As an epic drought sweeps Kenya, many pastoral households are protected from livestock loss through payouts from an innovative livestock insurance plan.

The Index-Based Livestock Insurance Project (IBLI), launched in 2008, was designed to protect Kenyan livestock keepers from drought-related asset losses. “Data showed that every four to six years there’s a pretty large drought where people can lose up to a third of their herd in a six-month window,” says John McPeak, professor of public administration and international affairs. “In the U.S., we deal with risk through insurance, so the concept was to see if there was a way to offer insurance that would be commercially viable and of assistance to herders.”

"It's important to have Americans out there in the world."
JOHN MCPEAK

McPeak is an economist with nearly 30 years experience working on agriculture-related projects in Africa, beginning with a stint as an agricultural extension agent in the Peace Corps in Senegal. He’s written dozens of articles and chapters related to development issues in Africa, as well as two books: Risk and Social Change in an African Rural Economy: Livelihoods on Pastoralist Communities (Routledge Press) and Pastoral Livestock Marketing in Eastern Africa: Research and Policy Challenges (ITDG Publishing). McPeak was part of the team that launched the USAID-funded IBLI project, and remains an advisor to the program, which has expanded throughout Kenya and into Ethiopia.

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As with all of the aid and development projects he pursues, McPeak draws from the values instilled in the Peace Corps. “It’s important to have Americans out there in the world showing people we can be helpful,” he says. “We can share and apply our knowledge to important problems.”

If trends in Washington hold, though, those efforts may take a hit. President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal included a 31-percent cut to bilateral foreign aid, including funding for the United Nations, World Bank, and other international institutions.

McPeak argues that proposed budget cuts are short-sighted. “If we take the amount of foreign aid spending and reallocate it toward domestic concerns, we’re not talking about an amount that would make a massive difference compared to the impact we have in developing countries,” he says.

Peter Castro, an applied cultural anthropologist with decades of experience consulting on development projects related to food security, poverty alleviation, sustainable natural resource management, and participatory development across Africa, says he can understand public frustration with foreign aid.

“We’ve been providing it for a long time — the original foreign aid helped rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII — but the public hears more about its failures than its successes. There’s a perception that much of the world does not like us, despite having been beneficiaries of aid,” says Castro.

What gets missed, he says, is the multitude of ways that aid has improved lives and livelihoods, both in humanitarian crises and through longer-term development processes.

“We always need to try to ensure that aid resources are spent and utilized wisely, but aid can and does make a difference in tangible ways. The scope and magnitude of human needs worldwide is still so great in terms of public services, infrastructure, food production, natural resource management,” says Castro, recently honored with SU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero Award for his 30 years working with organizations such as the Near East Foundation, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, USAID, the UN Development Program, and CARE.

In Central Darfur, Sudan, one of the world’s largest and most challenging humanitarian settings, for example, Castro witnessed USAID projects carried out by the Near East Foundation, contributing training, resources, and other assistance that tangibly helped a range of communities. “These projects not only promoted economic recovery but also local reconciliation and conflict resolution,” he says. “What was truly impressive was the extent to which the projects helped people help themselves.”

Cutting such foreign aid funding will not only cause long-term initiatives to stop abruptly, says McPeak, but cause preventable suffering that may also result in civil strife.

“FEWS NET, the USAID-funded and originated famine early warning system network, tells us food security is not looking good in Somalia, South Sudan, and northern Kenya,” he says. “We have tools to prevent this from happening and to avoid human suffering.”

Since 1990, global hunger and extreme poverty have fallen significantly and, on average, agricultural production has doubled, says Catherine Bertini, a professor of practice in public administration and international affairs who completes her service with Maxwell at the end of this academic year. Before Maxwell, Bertini, a World Food Prize laureate, served as executive director of the UN World Food Programme for 10 years. She’s been a senior fellow in agricultural development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The world is less poor, less hungry, and healthier than it was just a few decades ago,” she says, largely because of international aid and development efforts.

Despite those advances, she says, nearly 800 million people are still chronically hungry, and more than 700 million live in extreme poverty. “Gains in agricultural production have occurred unevenly, and increasingly urban populations and the growing demographic youth bulge put new pressures on global food systems,” she says. “At the same time, volatile weather patterns and natural resource pressures will test our ability to meet growing demand for food, safely and sustainably.”

Meeting these challenges will require the continued financial support from donor countries and organizations such as USAID, says Bertini, who stresses that such investment serves our country’s best interest.

“Investments in agricultural development and food security can transform economies, building new markets locally, nationally, regionally, and globally,” says Bertini. “Advancing food security promotes national security interests, as hunger and unstable food prices can spur unrest and instability, sometimes with widespread ramifications.”

McPeak points to food insecurity indicators to suggest why the Arab Spring happened when it did. “If we don’t want to deal with conflicts in hot spots and fragile states, we ought to be fostering food security to the extent that we can,” he says.

But it’s not just issues related to food that make a difference. Experts say humanitarian efforts in almost any sphere pay dividends in good will. “From a geopolitical strategy perspective, foreign aid has always been important in establishing influence,” says Castro. “In the early 2000s, for example, I was fascinated to see how quickly and thoroughly China emerged as a presence through its foreign aid in Ethiopia and many other parts of Africa. America seemed to be asleep compared with China or the EU.”

Aid can make a big difference in people’s lives, providing new skills and opportunities that people can use to improve their well-being, echoes McPeak. “Also, it’s just the right thing to do.”

Photo Credit: DB Images/Alamy Stock Photo

This article appeared in the spring 2017 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2017 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.