Three Reasons Why International Development Can Translate into Development Back Home


Here’s a quiz: How much do U.S. taxpayers spend on foreign aid? Ask most Americans, and you’ll hear different versions of the same answer: too much. But those of us who work in international development—a catch-all name for the ways foreign aid is actually spent—know better.

Try picturing the federal budget as a 100-slice pie. Now picture this: Foreign aid isn’t even a slice. But wait, say foreign aid critics. That’s still a lot of money—especially in tough economic times. Besides, what are Americans getting in return?

Let’s start with the help we’re extending to those in need. By combatting chronic development challenges like extreme poverty, hunger, or illiteracy, we’re not only improving—and, in some cases, saving—lives. We’re also helping remove the causes of political instability, which is good for America and the world.

Those are lofty goals, sure. But Americans can also count practical reasons why international development translates into development back home. Here are three:

1. Human Capital Ever since President Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1960 and, a year later, the U.S. Agency for International Development, hundreds of thousands of men and women have put their skills—as engineers, educators, health practitioners, and more—to the test in some of the world’s toughest environments. Along with our military veterans, these civil servants want to put their overseas experience to work. They have the talent, drive, and experience to create economic opportunities for themselves and their communities. And they know how to make things happen with scant resources.

2. Creative Solutions Many people view international development as a one-way street, where the developed world brings its knowledge and experience to the developing world. In fact, it can work both ways. International projects can be “incubators” for domestic economic development, too. Take cash for work programs, which my colleague and KANAVA co-founder Carol Yee used in Afghanistan to provide work for unemployed men and infuse cash directly into the economy. A similar approach could have worked after Hurricane Katrina, helping rebuild individual livelihoods and communities devastated by the flooding.

3. Networks International development professionals can help bring together communities and people who are facing similar challenges around the world. And the similarities are striking. Although the severity and scale of poverty in America is far less than the worldwide challenge, its effects are no less devastating to citizens and communities here. In fact, based on the 2012 census, more than 46 million Americans live in poverty.

The challenges faced by America’s poor—especially in rural areas—are all-too-familiar to those of us who have fought poverty in other countries. From unemployment to low wages to underfunded schools and infrastructure, each of these challenges demands creative solutions. International development is about finding those solutions. Domestic development should be about that, too. Let’s work together to make it happen.

Kanava International