Shadow Government

Misreading Romney’s foreign aid speech

Josh Rogin’s take on Gov. Mitt Romney’s speech Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering left me scratching my head. Much of his piece quoted Romney’s remarks to good effect by highlighting portions where Romney calls for reforms designed to treat the causes of poverty, oppression, and suffering, not just the symptoms. But in a ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages

Josh Rogin’s take on Gov. Mitt Romney’s speech Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering left me scratching my head. Much of his piece quoted Romney’s remarks to good effect by highlighting portions where Romney calls for reforms designed to treat the causes of poverty, oppression, and suffering, not just the symptoms. But in a couple of key places Rogin draws inferences the text does not support, such as the inference that a Romney administration won’t be as interested in humanitarian assistance. In another place, he says that Romney believes that the corruption that results from foreign aid is because today the vast majority of foreign aid comes from private sources (investment and charitable giving) and not from governments. But Romney simply did not say any of this. Let’s look at these in reverse order.

Rogin notes that Romney understands the American public’s frustration with decades of aid that is ineffective and doesn’t solve problems. And worse, as Romney notes, the aid gets into the hands of corrupt governments. That is, Americans believe that for too long the U.S. provided aid that didn’t do what it was supposed to do: End suffering and promote prosperity. The context of the entire quotation is historical in nature, and that is important to understand in order to get Romney’s next point.

Romney asserts that "Perhaps some of our disappointments are due to our failure to recognize just how much the developing world has changed. Many of our foreign aid efforts were designed at a time when government development assistance accounted for roughly 70 percent of all resources flowing to developing nations. Today, 82 percent of the resources flowing into the developing world come from the private sector. If foreign aid can leverage this massive investment by private enterprise, it may exponentially expand the ability to not only care for those who suffer, but also to change lives."

But Rogin takes these comments — the lament about ineffectiveness and corruption — and interprets Romney to be saying that the failure is due to this very privatization of aid. This is odd. Romney cannot possibly believe that for two reasons. First, as an advocate of the private sector, the governor knows that corruption results from too much government control and power over people’s lives, not less. More aid flowing from the private sector of the developed countries to the private sector of the less developed countries is a good thing. The only corruption I can think of that could be suggested by increased inflows of private sector money is when foreign businesses pay bribes to get an advantage, but Romney says nothing about that and Rogin does not suggest it. Besides, that would be an argument about too much power in the hands of government, the very thing Romney decries because it makes aid ineffective and breeds corruption.

Second, as I noted above, Romney is referring to Americans’ frustrations in historical context, the "years of aid relief" that don’t work as planned. So he states what Americans have been seeing and thinking over the years, and says they want something different. Romney thinks that something different is here and now but we haven’t adapted to it yet. That is, more aid flows from and to private hands and that is a good thing, but our policy is outdated and needs to catch up to that fact and build on it. Says Romney, "If foreign aid can leverage this massive investment by private enterprise, it may exponentially expand the ability to not only care for those who suffer, but also to change lives." The point should be clear: If we want to avoid foreign aid ineffectiveness and corruption, we need to make sure our policies promote the private sector in the developing countries. This is the point about partnerships and trade.

Another problem with Rogin’s interpretation of Romney’s remarks is the former’s assertion several times that Romney wants to "deprioritize" or "lower the priority" of humanitarian assistance. Romney simply did not say this. Let’s first note exactly what Romney said the priorities of foreign assistance should be.

"There are three, quite legitimate, objects of our foreign aid. First, to address humanitarian need. Such is the case with the PEPFAR initiative, which has given medical treatment to millions suffering from HIV and AIDS.

Second, to foster a substantial United States strategic interest, be it military, diplomatic, or economic.

And there is a third purpose, one that will receive more attention and a much higher priority in a Romney administration. And that is aid that elevates people and brings about lasting change in communities and in nations."

This is a clear and definitive statement of Romney’s priorities and goals with his suggested reforms. At no point in these lines does he suggest what Rogin appears to infer, that Romney wants the U.S. to provide less humanitarian assistance. But Romney would put a higher priority on aid that works; on aid that keeps governments from getting in the way of free people and free markets; and on aid "that elevates people and brings about lasting change." It is a stretch to say this means deprioritizing humanitarian assistance unless you believe that the one and only way to deliver humanitarian assistance is by means of government, or that there are no partnerships between the public and private sectors to fulfill this foreign assistance goal.

The GOP nominee laid out one of the boldest and clearest reforms since the U.S. foreign assistance regime was inaugurated with the Marshall Plan more than half a century ago. In doing so, Romney recognizes the problem of too much government control over problems that only the private sector can solve. He celebrates work and personal achievement over never-ending government programs that treat symptoms and not causes…sort of like he does with the U.S. domestic economic problems.

Paul J. Bonicelli is professor of government at Regent University, and served as the assistantadministrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.