The United States must not cut back on foreign aid, the new American secretary of state John Kerry has said on the eve of his visit to London, amid reports David Cameron may divert UK aid money to the military.
In his first speech since being appointed to succeed Hillary Clinton in President Obama's cabinet, the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate said international development was "not a giveaway".
"Every time that a tough fiscal choice looms, the easiest place to point fingers – foreign aid. As Ronald Reagan said, foreign aid suffers from a lack of domestic constituency, and that’s part of the reason that everyone thinks it costs a lot more than it really does. So we need to change that," he said.
"I reject the excuse that Americans just aren’t interested in what’s happening outside of their immediate field of vision ... our investment abroad actually makes them and our nation safer."
Kerry told students at the University of Virginia that the price of abandoning the foreign affairs budget "would be exorbitant".
"The vacuum we would leave by retreating within ourselves will quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from ours," he warned.
"Foreign assistance is not a giveaway. It’s not charity. It is an investment in a strong America and in a free world. Foreign assistance lifts other people up and then reinforces their willingness to link arms with us in common endeavors."
Kerry also noted that most Americans think 25% of the US federal budget is spent on foreign affairs, when in fact it is just over one percent.
"Think about it a little bit. Over one percent, a little bit more, funds all of our civilian and foreign affairs efforts – every embassy, every program that saves a child from dirty drinking water, or from AIDS, or reaches out to build a village, and bring America’s values, every person."
And he said the size of the foreign affairs budget was misunderstood by the public as politicians could not help themselves from trashing it and promising to cut it. "If you’re looking for an applause line, that’s about as guaranteed an applause line as you can get. But guess what? It does nothing to guarantee our security. It doesn’t guarantee a stronger country," he said.
Kerry is due to make his first foreign trip next week, starting with a visit to London where he will meet with "senior British officials".
On Thursday it was reported that David Cameron is prepared to divert some of the British aid budget away form the Department for International Development to the Ministry of Defence.
The coalition is committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid. But the ring-fenced budget has come in for persistent criticism from many Conservative MPs, who want to see the money spent elsewhere at a time of budget cuts.
But now some of the money could be diverted to stabilise war-torn states, and NGOs fear the target could be under threat.
Oxfam's head of policy Max Lawson said the aid budget should be spent on "hospitals and not helicopter gunships".
After visiting London, Kerry will then travel onto Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
In his speech Kerry also hailed the planned EU-US trade deal. He said: "The exciting new trade negotiation that President Obama announced last week between the United States and the European Union will create the world’s biggest bilateral deal when it comes to fruition, a transatlantic partnership that will match the scope and ambition of our Trans-Pacific Partnership talks."
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