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The Importance of Global Health and Public Diplomacy Programs

This week, news leaked that President Trump would propose his first budget. While all details have not been announced, defense spending is expected to rise 10% and in order to offset the increase in costs; domestic agencies and the State department are expected to see massive cuts.

Image courtesy of the World Bank Photo Collection, © 2015.

According to the Washington Post, administration officials have singled out foreign aid, saying it would see “large reductions in spending.” What Trump and his administration haven’t realized is that while cuts in foreign aid plays well on the campaign trail, it is actually detrimental to foreign policy and national security. According to Kasier Family Foundation’s annual survey on public opinion and foreign aid, Americans on average believe that 31% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid when in reality it is less than 1%.

President Trump’s administration is too quick to cut State Department and foreign aid programs. Global health and public diplomacy programs such as PEPFAR(President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief), Fulbright, and the Cultural Heritage Center are important drivers of soft power.  President Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy has been reduced to “speak softly and carry a big stick”. That stick is hard power, military power which can be seen a threat. Soft power, a more persuasive approach to international relations and foreign policy, is the carrot,  coaxing reluctant people to support the United States.

Exchange programs connect people from around the world and programs like the Mandela Fellowship Program are building the leaders from tomorrow. These programs give future leaders from countries around the world a favorable impression of the United States.  The numbers speak for themselves. State Department’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau has a large number of exchange programs: with participants including 565 heads of foreign governments, 105 Pulitzer Prize winners, 82 Nobel Prize winners, 89 members of congress, 26 heads of international organizations, and 58 Ambassadors to the United Nations. Over 122,000 Americans have participated in the Fulbright Program since its inception in 1947, visiting 155 countries. When Americans go abroad, they represent the United States in programs like the Peace Corps, building up popular opinion.

Many studies have shown that PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Program For AIDS Relief, a 6.8 billion dollar program that pays for over 50% of antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS’s, has worked to improve the perception of the United States. These studies say that the United States has a 68% approval rating in PEPFAR countries compared to the global average 46%. USAID’s tagline is “From the American People” and every bag of food to a nation experiencing famine or every lifesaving box of medicine with that tag line tells the recipients exactly who is saving their lives.

There is a direct correlation between global health diplomacy and national security. According to World Bank data, PEPFAR countries in sub-Saharan Africa have reduced political instability and violent activity by 40% compared with only 3% in non-PEPFAR countries in the region. Recipient countries combat terrorism with the help of foreign aid, which decreases poverty, strengthen institutions, and lower rates of corruption. Countries that have stronger infrastructure, agricultural improvements, education, and health systems are generally more stable countries, which in turn create a more stable international order. Countries like Sudan and Afghanistan, which have required intervention by outside actors, are countries that were overlooked by foreign aid in the 90s and early 2000s.

Global health diplomacy is an important part of public diplomacy, along with cultural, educational, and sports diplomacy. Every two years, we’re reminded of the importance of sports in international relations as countries that hate each other compete for gold in the Olympics, side by side. Everyday smaller programs like the Cultural Heritage Center, which preserves historic landmarks and cultures around the world, remind people that the United States is not just a military superpower, but a nation that wants to build a better, more peaceful world. The United States is the wealthiest county in the world and we have a moral and civic duty to use that wealth for the good of the world. We have the ability to save millions of lives from disease, conflict, and hunger while at the same time strengthening national security. Refugees don’t want to leave their countries and the best way to prevent a mass influx of immigrants is to solve the problems of war or famine in their home countries.  If President Trump really wants to protect American boarders, then he can start by increasing foreign aid and public diplomacy programs.

Voters don’t get briefings on national security or foreign policy, which is why they elect people to make decisions in their best interests. These decisions may not always be popular but someone has to make the hard decisions. A president’s job is not to do what plays well in the media; a president’s job is to do what is right for the country. Public diplomacy, foreign aid, and global health diplomacy all are good for the United States in the long term and the president would do well to be reminded of this.


Alex Penler is a Communications Officer on a USAID Project, AIDSFree. She graduated with a Masters of Science with distinction from the London School of Economics in Globalization. She is also a graduate of Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame) and has worked with Senator Sherrod Brown, Smithsonian Institute and Unicef.


Alex Penler

Alex Penler is a Communications Officer on a USAID Project, AIDSFree. She graduated with a Masters of Science with distinction from the London School of Economics in Empires, Colonialism and Globalization. She is also a graduate of Saint Mary's College (Notre Dame) and has interned with Senator Sherrod Brown, Smithsonian Institute and Unicef.
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1 Comment

  1. Benjamin Dills on March 8, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Great, and very important article! Foreign aid does so much good for such a small amount of money.

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