Foreign aid is often in the hot seat, but today the heat is cranked up especially high. The U.S. government, one of the world’s most influential donors, is considering dramatic cuts to health and development programs around the world. I understand why some Americans watch their tax dollars going overseas and wonder why we’re not spending them at home. Here’s my answer: These projects keep Americans safe. And by promoting health, security and economic opportunity, they stabilize vulnerable parts of the world.
This is a lesson I’ve learned myself. When I first got involved in health and development, the main motivation was to save and improve people’s lives around the world. That’s still true today, but over the years I have come to see the tangible ways in which American aid benefits Americans too.
For one thing, it helps prevent epidemics. The most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people, but the death toll would have been much worse had the disease spread widely in neighboring Nigeria, a global travel hub that’s home to 180 million people. What contained it? Among other things, a group of health workers who were stationed there for an anti-polio campaign. They were quickly reassigned to the Ebola fight, and their efforts helped stop the disease–and kept it from crossing the Atlantic to the U.S.
The biggest public funder of anti-polio work has been the U.S. government, and for good reason: it is protecting Americans and helping us get ready for the next epidemic, which could be orders of magnitude deadlier than Ebola. To stop emerging diseases, we need the infrastructure built by consistent funding of well-run health programs.
Another example is America’s global HIV effort, known as PEPFAR, which was started under President George W. Bush and works with some of the world’s poorest countries. PEPFAR is an undeniable success. There are 11 million people with HIV who are alive today because of the medicines PEPFAR programs provide–and many more who never got the virus in the first place.
This is not simply a humanitarian accomplishment. For many countries it means more teachers, entrepreneurs, police officers and health workers who contribute to strong, stable societies. According to one study, political instability and violence in African countries with PEPFAR programs dropped 40% between 2004 and 2015.
A more stable world is good for everyone. But there are other ways that aid benefits Americans in particular. It strengthens markets for U.S. goods: of our top 15 trade partners, 11 are former aid recipients. It is also visible proof of America’s global leadership. Popular support for the U.S. is high in Africa, where aid has such a dramatic impact. Withdrawing now would not only cost lives but also create a leadership vacuum that others would happily fill.
Syria is a tragic example of what can happen when the key ingredients of stability don’t come together. Beginning in 2007, the country experienced the worst drought in its history, driving more than 1 million rural people into cities, stoking political tension and laying the foundation for the horrific civil war that continues to this day. Of course, there are many causes of the war, but the world will not be a safer place if the U.S. stops helping other countries meet their needs.
None of this is lost on our military leaders. More than 120 retired generals and admirals wrote a letter to Congress in February arguing that U.S. programs “are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis famously said, back when he was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other hot spots, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department”–which runs many of America’s key programs–“then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Protecting Americans, preventing epidemics, saving lives: aid delivers phenomenal benefits, and for a bargain. It represents less than 1% of the federal budget, not even a penny out of every dollar. It is some of the best return on investment anywhere in government. This money is well spent, it has an enormous impact, and it ought to be maintained.
This appears in the May 15, 2017 issue of TIME.