Evangelicals and the case for foreign aid

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., makes the case for international aid.

By Richard Stearns, president, World Vision U.S. Photo by Sopheak Kong.
Published November 11, 2011 at 12:00am PST

Washington is in an era of budget-cutting, so we frequently hear calls to shrink or eliminate U.S. foreign-assistance programs. In response, several religious groups (including my own) are highlighting how these programs reduce global poverty and hunger, saving millions of lives.

But why are evangelical Christians largely absent from this religious coalition?

In a recent closed-door session on Capitol Hill, representatives from the National Council of Churches, Catholic Relief Services, and Bread for the World met with several senators about the Senate’s proposed reduction of $3 billion from last year's foreign-affairs budget. (The House would eliminate $9 billion.) The director of Church World Service, John McCullough, told reporters afterward that “responding to hunger and poverty is not a partisan issue…It is a moral issue that people of faith, across the political spectrum, agree upon.”

This is largely true, but a Pew survey earlier this year found that 56% of evangelicals think “aid to the world’s poor” should be the first thing cut from the federal budget. In September, a Baylor University survey found that Americans who strongly believe that “God has a plan” for their lives — as evangelicals do — are the most likely to oppose government intervention on behalf of the poor.

There’s much misinformation about foreign aid. When a 2010 survey by World Public Opinion asked Americans how much of the federal budget they think goes to aid, the median estimate was 25 percent. In fact, poverty-focused aid makes up just 0.5 percent of the federal budget, while the entire foreign-affairs budget, including the operation of embassies and the salaries of diplomats, is less than 1.5 percent.

Many Americans also perceive our foreign-assistance programs to be ineffective and wasteful. I disagree. Before becoming president of World Vision in 1998, I was the CEO of Lenox, a manufacturer of fine tableware. While I knew plenty about selling china to newlyweds, I knew little to nothing about humanitarian aid. But when I flew to Uganda and met orphaned children who lived alone and without any adults — often depending on American generosity to survive — my heart was changed forever.

Coming back to the United States, I set out to spread the truth about the plight of AIDS orphans to evangelicals who support World Vision. By 2005, thanks in part to the support of President George W. Bush, most evangelicals had become supporters of the U.S. government’s AIDS relief program, known as PEPFAR.

Americans should understand that foreign aid strengthens democracy. A 2006 report out of Vanderbilt University and the University of Pittsburgh found a direct connection between U.S. aid and increased democratization and good governance, as measured by the Freedom House index. Evangelicals generally support promoting democracy abroad not only because they support the values on which our country was founded, but also because they are strong advocates for the freedom of religion that accompanies democratic values.

Then there are the lives saved. Our aid programs don’t have an unblemished record, and waste and corruption need to be rooted out. But PEPFAR, for example, is now providing lifesaving drugs to 3 million people living with AIDS, mostly in Africa. It also provides care and support to another 2.5 million orphans and vulnerable children. If Congress cuts that program 10 percent, my organization estimates, 400,000 people will lose their medicine, and potentially lose their lives.

The U.S. Malaria Initiative, meanwhile, has saved more than a million lives in Africa. And at a time when more than a billion people do not have enough food to eat, President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative provides nutrition assistance and helps 21 South American, African, and Asian countries feed themselves, without dependence on aid. Finally, American relief following natural disasters such as the Haitian earthquake or South Asian tsunami save lives and win America friends.

One objection that I often hear from evangelicals is that while aid is good, it is not the government’s job. Yes, individuals and churches play a vital role in aid and development. But governments play a unique and vital role that private organizations cannot. The poverty-focused programs in the foreign-aid budget are facing cuts of between $1.2 billion and $3.2 billion from 2010 levels. In comparison, the largest American Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has a budget of $308 million for its missionary and aid organization.

We cannot let others suffer simply because times are tough in the United States. All Americans must understand the urgency of the human need and the effectiveness of our government’s aid programs.

Take action

Call your members of Congress. Ask them to oppose major cuts to the International Affairs Budget. There are few places in the U.S. federal budget where dollars translate so directly into lives saved.