Bill Gates and Bill Clinton are soul mates and fellow travelers who for years have fought for increased funding for global health, education, agriculture and anti-poverty initiatives.
Last year, the two titans of the business and politics even posed for a “selfie” at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.
In grading the federal government’s performance in providing critically needed overseas assistance during the past couple of decades, however, the Microsoft co-founder and multi-billionaire gives his friend the former president a Gentleman’s C at best.
“If you look at the figures, the low point in terms of U.S. aid generosity was at the end of the Clinton administration,” Gates said Wednesday evening during an appearance in the nation’s capital sponsored by Atlantic Media. “So it’s kind of ironic in his post-presidential career [that] he has been very effective – as we’ve seen him involved in aid topics and making the case for aid.”
U.S. international assistance programs as a percent of overall federal spending dipped below one percent during Clinton’s two terms, between 1993 and 2001, and only bounced back above one percent after Republican George W. Bush took office and pushed through an unprecedented five-year, multi-billion strategy for global emergency AIDs relief.
In fairness, Bill Clinton was saddled with a Republican-controlled Congress that pressed for deep spending cuts and a balanced budget and put foreign aid and welfare way down on their priority list.
“Bush was involved in a fantastic increase – a near doubling of the aid budget,” Gates said with admiration during his wide-ranging, data-studded discussion of global assistance. Since President Obama took office, foreign assistance has continued to rise modestly, but not nearly at the pace Gates and other advocates had anticipated.
“It has continued to go up, but we would have dreamed it would double again,” Gates said. “In fact, there was a campaign pledge that many of the candidates signed up for that it was going to double again.”
Obama, of course, inherited the worst economic and financial calamity of modern times and had to greatly scale back his ambitions in many areas other than stabilizing the economy, dealing with massive unemployment and passing health care reform.
“I give the Obama administration a lot of credit for trying to manage the aid budget very well, pushing for some increases,” Gates said, including recent increases to combat polio and fund agricultural assistance and family planning.
Gates says there’s a widespread misconception over how much the government actually spends on foreign aid. One poll showed that the average American thinks the United States spends 28 percent of the federal budget on aid to foreign governments – or more than the U.S. spends on Social Security, Medicare or defense. In reality, Congress and the administration spend only 1 percent on foreign aid.
Last year, U.S. government funding for humanitarian assistance and international development totaled roughly $23 billion. In addition, the U.S. spent an estimated $14 billion for foreign military assistance, to train foreign armies and provide them with weapons. Overall spending overseas totaled $37 billion.
Obama is seeking $46.2 billion in overall foreign assistance in his fiscal 2015 budget proposal.
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