- - Thursday, July 23, 2020

Of all the federal spending that has flowed over the dam of fiscal restraint since the pandemic began in March, none has caught the attention of members of Congress and the public like a measure proposed for the next coronavirus rescue bill might.

A number of members of Congress are on board with a proposal to spend $12 billion to help other countries cope with the pandemic. The notion of including a significant amount of foreign aid in a coronavirus relief package won’t sit well with some members of either party. So far, Congress has appropriated only $2.4 billion in foreign aid out of the $3 trillion spent on coronavirus relief legislation.

But there is momentum behind this proposal. It is backed by at least 32 senators, including 14 Republicans led by Marco Rubio of Florida, who signed a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asking him to include “robust, coordinated and sufficiently resourced international response” in the next coronavirus legislation.

When the last COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, the last schools reopened, the last phase passed through, we will left be to sort out a new landscape in the world.

Economic power will have shifted. Security concerns will have changed dramatically. A great reckoning of sovereign debt may be in order as the world rebalances after the pandemic.

The United States will be in position to emerge from this in even stronger position than before if the help it extends the rest of the world — rebuilding economies, supplying medicines and vaccines, feeding the hungry — is handled effectively.

Work has begun on this. Earlier this month, the State Department announced $274 million in aid to 64 priority countries, including Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, India and Kazakhstan. It has offered assistance to China through the World Health Organization and other international groups.

It contributed $400 million to the World Health Organization before President Trump withdrew from the organization last month over its COVID-19 failures. China, where the virus originated, has contributed only $44 million. Similarly, last year, the United States contributed $700 million to UNICEF, the U.N.’s children’s fund and one of the first organizations to provide food relief for Chinese locked down in the virus’ initial wave. China contributed $16 million.

The United States contributed $1.9 billion to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees; China contributed $1.9 million. The United States accounted for 42% of the World Food Program’s $8 billion budget. No one else contributed even 10%.

As Helle Dale of The Heritage Foundation has written, China is trying to make up with a fierce propaganda battle what it is losing in the direct contributions contest. She quoted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently told Asian reporters,“The narratives are different, but each of them has the same component, which is to avoid responsibility and try and place confusion in the world — confusion about where the virus began but also confusion about how countries are responding to it and which countries are actually providing assistance throughout the world. And we think it’s important that those narratives are corrected.”

To that end, it is important that, to the extent practicable, the aid be targeted at non-government organizations, or NGOs, rather than sovereign states, as Presidents Truman and Eisenhower did after World War II, President Reagan did when a famine struck sub-Saharan Africa and President George W. Bush did with PEPFAR to fight AIDS.

Not only do NGOs know best where and how to apply aid, they operate with smaller bureaucracies, more incentive to perform and more emphasis on being effective as opposed to big.

The United States is the world’s leader in responding to crises. Only 2 percent of what it provides comes in the form of cash. The rest comes in projects, technical advice, training, equipment and construction in a wide range of sectors. Mr. McConnell already has said firms in the United States working on vaccines for the coronavirus should think in terms of making enough to serve the entire world as opposed to just the United States.

U.S. foreign assistance is provided for three purposes — national security, commercial interests (promoting trade and expanding economic opportunities for Americans) and humanitarian pursuits. The package Mr. Rubio and others are discussing checks all three boxes. If the United States wants to emerge from the pandemic still in the position of being the world leader on dealing with these crises, it will make foreign aid part of the package in the next coronavirus legislation.

• Brian McNicoll, a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., is a former senior writer for The Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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