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US foreign aid saves money as well as lives

John Freidah/MIT

Amos Winter works on desalination plants in India, but USAID projects such as this are threatened by budget cuts.

With severe cuts proposed for US agencies that handle environ­mental and health research, it might seem that scientists can’t prioritize the possible dismantling of US foreign-aid programmes. But they should. President Trump’s proposed 37% budget cut to the state department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which manages foreign assistance, would wreck a burgeoning and successful example of evidence-based policymaking.

US foreign aid has transformed significantly, so that it now involves fewer handouts and savvier science. In 2009, former president Barack Obama heralded a greater role for research in foreign policy when he used a speech in Cairo to argue that science and innovation provide the means to tackle climate change, hunger and epidemics. These problems foster poverty, which can in turn breed political instability, conflict and disease — all of which have ripple effects that don’t respect borders.

Indeed, international aid has always been self-serving. Look no further than arguments from high-ranking officials against Trump’s proposed changes. Although the cuts to USAID and the state department are intended to offset a US$54-billion increase in defence spending, 121 retired generals and admirals sent a letter to Congress on 27 February, warning that a reduction in foreign assistance endangers national security. They wrote: “Many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone.”

Many crises are best countered by viable science, technology and implementation strategies. And some USAID funds go into research that evaluates whether these interventions could be conducted more efficiently or with fewer unintended consequences. Take, for instance, the agency’s President’s Malaria Initiative, started by George W. Bush in 2005. The initiative supports parasitology laboratories in Mali that monitor whether subsidized malaria drugs currently given to healthy children are on track to avert an estimated 80,000 deaths per year in West Africa, as projected by clinical trials — and how rapidly those treatments are leading malaria parasites to become resistant to the drugs.

One useful by-product is that, with funding, researchers and labs in poor countries become better equipped to monitor and manage diseases before they escalate to an unstoppable point, as the Ebola outbreak did in West Africa — costing US taxpayers $2.6 billion.

As political positions harden, it’s worth pointing out that science at USAID is the applied variety that conservatives tend to favour. And that transparent analysis of methods and results allows inefficient programmes to be killed or adapted over time. Budget cuts that threaten this key part of aid will guarantee that wasteful programmes continue for too long.

In this sphere, social and economic impacts are as important as technical and scientific success. This is demonstrated by projects funded by USAID’s Feed the Future Innovation Labs, which sponsor partnerships between agricultural researchers at US universities and those in low- and middle-income countries. One team, led by plant pathologist Jagger Harvey at Kansas State University in Manhattan, is developing portable grain dryers that preserve harvested crops and keep them free from mould. A sign of the group’s success is that small-scale farmers in Bangladesh are buying the technology. That renders it less likely to go the way of so many aid projects — ditched by the side of the road because they are impractical or unwanted.

Sustainability is also a key value of the agency’s Global Development Lab, which launched in 2014 as a hub for US scientists with ideas on how to confront specific pressing challenges, such as emerging pandemics and a growing need for fresh water. One of the lab’s grant winners, mechanical engineer Amos Winter of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, installed a solar-powered desalination unit in southern India in January. From the perspective of both USAID and Tata Projects, an Indian infrastructure company that has invested in the technology, the system is attractive because it’s engineered to hit a price point. Specifically, Indian communities of roughly 3,000 people will be able use around 10,000 litres of fresh water per day, but they will not pay more than $11,000 for the system. Until now, most off-the-grid communities have found solar-powered desalination units too expensive. As a result, they drink brackish water and suffer the health consequences.

Technologies such as Winter’s system — engineered to be inexpensive and off-grid as a matter of necessity — may one day end up in rich countries, as fresh water and other resources become increasingly scarce around the world. In other words, the United States also remains competitive by having a hand in the development of innovations abroad.

On 27 January, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report recommending more science at USAID. As co-author Michael Clegg says: “We enhance people’s welfare around the world and we gain.”

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