Why humanitarian aid is a powerful foreign policy strategy

Humanitarian aid increases human welfare on a global scale, but it can also be one of the greatest ways of spreading influence and diplomatic power.

Humanitarian aid increases human welfare on a global scale, but it can also be one of the greatest ways of spreading influence and diplomatic power. 

One of a nation’s primary ambitions is to make sure that its interests are seen through on a worldwide scale. Foreign policy encompasses economic, cultural and military initiatives and for a long time that primarily meant the latter: militaristic might and force. Now, in an increasingly globalized environment, foreign policy requires much more tact.

Successful foreign policy entails a focus on areas of trade, global finance, human rights and humanitarian foreign aid. The U.S. is required to deal with a litany of concerns on the world stage, and one of the ways it does this is through foreign aid—it’s a powerful foreign policy tool in America’s non-combative arsenal. Nations can use foreign aid as a way of bolstering a friendly regime or punishing an antagonistic nation by withdrawing aid.

The granting and receipt of foreign assistance serves the commercial interests of donor countries. Target countries receiving the aid are given an incentive to adjust their behavior or risk termination of aid. This can be an effective deterrent against rogue nation-states that depend on foreign aid, and by helping the people of a foreign nation, donors can also win favor and strengthen diplomatic ties without the threat of war.    

The United States as a donor can decide which countries will receive aid, when they’ll receive it, what it is and how to deliver it. In 2016, the most recent available data, the U.S. spent $49 billion on foreign aid—about 1% of its annual spending—which includes supporting the UN. Many critics of overseas foreign development and assistance feel that this is a waste of resources, and a 2017 Rasmussen poll reports that 57% of Americans feel that the U.S. gives too much—but there is evidence to show that this is not the case.

Investments in foreign aid enhance the recipient country’s wellbeing and ensure greater stability and security. Meanwhile, it spurs them to become more peaceful societies and greater allies of the United States.    

Locals assist crew members from USS Kearsarge to load a landing craft utility with supplies to aid those affected by hurricanes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2008. America's contributions to the relief efforts were coordinated by the United States Agency for International Development (UNAID) and its U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance office. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Joshua Adam Nuzzo/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

The effectiveness of global foreign aid

Although the level of aid sent out to foreign countries varies from year to year, the practice isn’t going away anytime soon. This has remained true for some time. In a book written in 1962 titled The Politics of Foreign Aid, William Henderson states:

“Foreign aid as a political instrument of U.S. policy is here to stay because of its usefulness and flexibility.”

Many times we don’t realize that foreign aid is more than just a tool for economic development of poorer or destabilized countries. By alleviating poverty, these developing states enter into the global political sphere in a greater developed stage. The citizenry is less apt to join fundamentalist groups or dogmatic rebel movements. 

There’s quantifiable research that backs up this viewpoint. A 2018 study titled “Has development assistance for health facilitated the rise of more peaceful societies in sub-Saharan Africa?” found that countries in this region have become more stable as a result of American aid. The authors analyzed the years between 2005 and 2014, where a plan from the executive branch titled the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and other global health programs, were given increases in funding. It was found that countries that received the highest levels of health aid per capita had improved nation-state stability metrics. This entails measures such as higher governing quality, less corruption, and a greater civil society. Many of these countries were also highly destabilized because of HIV outbreaks and other disease-affected living conditions.   

(Source: 'Has development assistance for health facilitated the rise of more peaceful societies in sub-Saharan Africa?')

Their findings suggested that low-income nations that faced greater health challenges and received support for their health systems found immediate results in state stability metrics. "Seventeen nations (36.2%) exhibited an overall decline in their FSI over the duration of the study period [Figure 1, above], indicating greater stability," the study states. On top of saving lives, it also gave rise to more peaceful and governable societies.

An opportune time to take the lead

The U.S. foreign assistance budget makes up only 1% of the entire federal budget. This is a small price to pay for increased global stability through non-violent means. Continued U.S. foreign assistance is an important step in ensuring nations stay stable and the country’s interests are protected abroad. Many global threats like mass epidemics and terrorism grow from the seeds of instability and corrupt governance. Working towards counteracting these problems doesn’t just save lives today but it also helps bring about a more prosperous tomorrow.  

One such businessman knows the positive implications that humanitarian aid can bring to unstable foreign countries. In a post by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, titled "Giving foreign aid helps America’s economy", he put forth the proposition that previous U.S. foreign aid intervention helped lead the way for a number of countries to become economic powerhouses and subsequently helped United States businesses. He states:

“Just a few decades before we opened our Tokyo office, Japan had been devastated by World War II. Its economy and infrastructure lay in ruins. How did they recover? Among other things, through smart aid programs from the United States and others. By the 1980s Japan’s economy was booming, and the country presented a great opportunity for companies like us. To this day, sales there are a key part of Microsoft’s success and these sales have produced many jobs in Japan and America alike.

Microsoft’s experience in Japan is part of a larger trend that’s still going on today, as more countries join the ranks of the middle class. Countless U.S. companies are doing business in places that used to get American aid but have become self-sufficient, including South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam, and Thailand.”

Harking back to the days of the Marshall Plan and reconstruction of Japan, Gates postulates that similar efforts could do the same for Middle Eastern or African countries as well.

In a time when there are tens of millions of displaced peoples fleeing from famine and civil wars, humanitarian aid is needed now more than ever. There is a precedent in the past that we can follow. Rather than create further enemies through war and hard-headedness, we can create peace and economic prosperity through foreign aid.  


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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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