Foreign Education Aid: A Moral Imperative?

Each Wednesday, a member of the Editorial Team will weigh in on this month's theme of education.

“The moral imperative of supporting struggling communities around the world is self evident. The people of the United States have always understood this obligation, and their generosity is unequaled by the people of any other country.” These words by my congressman, Jim Moran, in a 2011 opinion piece prompt me to consider the character of justice as it relates to foreign aid, specifically education-based assistance. Does the U.S. have an obligation to promote and pursue the education of all? If not, then why? If so, then to what extent?

This article considers the “if so” and makes the argument that education aid is not fungible, but does have the capacity to produce public and social goods in ways that other aid cannot. In order for the effect of education aid to be fully realized, its supporters must engage in a conversation that considers three factors: (a) past U.S. government involvement in education, (b) perceptions and efficacy of foreign assistance, and (c) budgetary challenges. These issues certainly complicate education-aid funding but in no way should annul it. Just as Benjamin Franklin so adeptly concluded, an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.

Historical Approach to Education in the U.S. 

Beginning with the earliest colonies in the new world, America has long since prioritized education, albeit not always equitably for females and minorities. But has America “always understood” such a moral imperative as Congressman Moran suggests? As early as the late 17th century, New England colonies enacted compulsory laws that established policy on literacy and development of governing structures for school systems.

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education building.

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education building.

After independence, the U.S. traversed a period where the planning and administration of education was highly decentralized. Throughout the 19th century, public policy was largely devoid of sweeping legislation meant to shape the state of public education. Not until the 20th century did the current state of public education begin to take form. Compulsory elementary school attendance was fairly widespread, but what is now known as the Department of Education was merely an office embedded within the Department of Interior. Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), a seminal Supreme Court case on the nature of due process and the fourteenth amendment stated the following:

“The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in the Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligation.”

The majority opinion solidified the nature of education in America by recognizing that those who nurture, not the state, have the duty to direct a child’s destiny and prepare them for future obligations. Yet, federal support for education took on a different nature in post-WWII America. The G.I. Bill (1944), National Defense Education Act (1958), Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), and ultimately the creation of the cabinet-level Department of Education (1980) ushered in a new era of government involvement in education. The point of this pithy overview of education in America is to suggest that the federal government is somewhat new to funding and managing education at the primary level. For this reason, America’s domestic history and record for funding in education has meaningful implications for its foreign funding and involvement.

U.S. Foreign Assistance

There are a number of aid instruments that bilateral and multilateral donors have at their disposal, including grants, technical cooperation, credits, loans, loan guarantees, and military aid. Typically these methods of disbursement come under one of three models: disaster relief, missionary model, and Oxfam model. While disaster relief is self-explanatory, the missionary model is relies on centuries-old tactics of charitable giving and volunteering and often resembles that of a missionary in a foreign land presenting new ideas or practices. The Oxfam model relies on local communities to determine their particular needs instead of being dependent upon foreign expertise. I outline these methods and models because foreign aid is more sophisticated than simple bilateral handouts. These esoteric realities often confound the discussion on foreign aid as popular public opinion is much more seducing political fodder for those categorically opposed to expansions in foreign assistance.

Nevertheless, foreign aid cannot and should not escape the rigor of measuring its effectiveness and return on investment. From fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2013, the U.S. has spent over $3 billion on basic education and higher education abroad. During this six-year period, Afghanistan ($402 million), Pakistan ($394 million), Jordan ($167 million) have been the top recipients. Interestingly enough, the funding stream for these countries has largely mirrored the ebb and flow of military assistance. For instance, as the U.S. military presence diminishes in Afghanistan, so have the education dollars. As it stands, Afghanistan doesn't even rank among the top five countries receiving education aid in fiscal year 2013.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry presents a graduate with her Master's of Education diploma. ( USAID ) 

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry presents a graduate with her Master's of Education diploma. (USAID

At face value, these investments may seem like positive “offsets” to the years of war and foreign intervention that are designed to enhance the future of these societies. However, no federal expenditure should be above reproach and, as it turns out, the USAID education results website has not published a robust account of what this aid has achieved in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With 40% of Americans holding the belief that foreign aid should be cut beyond 1% of the federal budget, it is imperative that methodical program evaluation be performed and the results of these evaluations published for public consumption.

A 2012 report by the Harvard Program on Education Policy & Governance found that American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in Science, and 14th in reading. Countries in the top 10 of these categories typically spend more than 10 percent of their annual GDP on education while the U.S. has consistently spent around 3 percent on domestic education initiatives. What is more, any discussion on raising the amount allocated for education at home or abroad would be muddied by the challenging political context of significant annual budget deficits, which will also be around 3-4% ($642 billion) of American GDP for FY14. Although this is a welcomed departure from the $1 trillion+ of annual budget deficits, the fracas for federal dollars will be a familiar encumbrance to the 113thCongress.          

International Context

The moral imperative that guides the international community’s involvement in foreign education aid is found in the United Nations’ ambitious eight-fold plan, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Put forward in 2000 to lessen the plight of the world’s poorest individuals, the MDG names universal primary education as its second priority to be conquered by 2015. The current state of this initiative places the universal primary education enrollment rate at 90% as of 2010; the remaining 10% make up 61 million children without access or resources to a basic education. It was just for the U.S. to assert its resources and expertise in 2000, and it is just in 2013 for the U.S. to continue leading an investment in knowledge through the MDG.

Investment in education is usually not equated with an expedient return on investment. Yet, as Congressmen Moran suggests, it remains a moral imperative. Yes, the American fiscal climate is difficult. Yes, America has a spotted record in education management. Yes, there are deltas in the American primary education system. And, yes, foreign aid can be wasteful at times. But do these factors mean America should resign to the complexities of illiteracy and inaccessible primary education of millions of individuals?  For many, the pursuit of happiness begins with the opportunity of education. If one holds that there is no moral imperative for spending on education aid, can there at least be a collective consensus on the moral imperative of far-sided thinking, compassion, and investment? Just as the Eastern proverb says, if you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.

 -Jeremy Taylor is pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership and currently serves as a senior consultant to the federal government. He is the founder of a community forum known as Coffee & Currents that provides a welcoming environment for discussing society’s vexing questions. You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.