Critics are calling for cuts to the foreign aid provisions in this week’s $1.4 trillion spending bill to fund more generous COVID stimulus checks for Americans.

The $900 billion coronavirus stimulus bill agreed by lawmakers has sparked fury among American voters and lawmakers, with warnings that the $600 per person payments ordered by the legislation is inadequate and comes too late to help many Americans whose lives have been upturned by the pandemic.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday added his voice to the bipartisan criticism of the “ridiculously low” sum, and demanded lawmakers increase the payments to $2,000 per person.
Lawmakers also approved a larger $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill, consisting of 12 separate bills to fund the government during fiscal year 2021. This was not part of the coronavirus stimulus package, but did include a raft of foreign aid payments that critics are now arguing should be scrapped to fund more generous coronavirus checks for Americans.
This is a sensitive area for voters and lawmakers. Though foreign aid typically makes up around one percent of the entire federal budget, public perception is that the U.S. gives out far more. Polling suggests Americans believe the country spends up to a third of its entire budget on foreign aid.
Scrapping foreign aid alone would free up a relatively small amount in the federal budget. Still, Trump singled out these measures. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests, while sending the bare minimum to the American people who need it,” the president said.
It would be wrong to frame foreign aid as free money for countries included, or charity on the part of the U.S. The government uses aid as leverage to coerce nations into better behaviour on issues like human rights, or simply to align themselves closer to American policy.
Scaling back these commitments will weaken America’s hand in foreign policy, and will also leave vulnerable communities at greater risk of communal violence or state oppression. For opponents, this will be worth it if the money goes to Americans (of which there is no guarantee). But foreign policy experts and officials will push back on any attempt to undermine America’s clout abroad.
Egypt—which is in line for $1.3 billion in aid via the omnibus bill—is a good example. The country has long been a U.S. ally and a significant customer for American arms, leverage Washington, D.C. has used to secure Cairo’s cooperation on security issues and with Israel.
Indeed, the bill says this money will be released if Egypt is shown to be “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States” and maintaining its peace with Israel.
The $1.3 billion set aside for Egypt is mostly military aid, and has several other conditions attached to it.
For example, $225 million will not be released until the secretary of state tells Congress that the Egyptian government—headed by dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—has taken steps to improve its dire human rights situation, enhance its beleaguered democratic institutions, protect women’s rights, and fortify the rule of law, among other things.
Another $75 million will be withheld until the secretary of state confirms that the government is “making clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners and providing detainees with due process of law.”
The bill allows for $40 million for higher education programs, of which $15 million will cover scholarships for Egyptian students needing financial aid to attend not-for-profit higher education institutions in Egypt.
But all of this depends on Egypt’s conduct. The bill also says the country must make “consistent and effective steps to stabilize the economy and implement market-based economic reforms”—i.e. align its economy more with American capitalism.
Egypt’s neighbor Israel is also a major beneficiary of the omnibus bill, having been awarded $500 million in American funds. Funding for Israel has long been a bugbear for American progressives and libertarians.
But the political establishment in the U.S. remains committed to its alliance with Israel, and keen to reap the benefits of Israeli military spending on American arms, some of which is stipulated in law.
Of the funds, $50 million has been earmarked for Israeli short range ballistic missile spending with American firms. Another $77 million is for Israel to spend with American firms on the Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile system.
Elsewhere, the bill provides support for “necessary expenses” of the Israeli Arab Scholarship Program, which funds Israeli Arabs attending higher education institutions in the U.S. The omnibus also includes $5 million to support the settlement of refugees in Israel.
Palestinian authorities will get $250 million in economic aid spread over five years, assuming it remains committed to peaceful co-existence with Israel, takes counter-terrorism measures within its territories, and works towards Middle East peace.
Other headline beneficiaries include Sudan, which weeks after being removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List has been awarded $700 million in funds, though with stipulations that the country works towards democracy, improves its human rights situation, and that any new projects funded must be approved by congressional committees.
Ukraine, Nepal, Burma, Cambodia, and Pakistan are all among those in line for hundreds of millions in American aid. In each, the money is designed to promote democratic values and human rights, and tie the national governments closer to American foreign policy.
The $453 million earmarked for Ukraine is to support the country in its ongoing war against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country. Military support accounts for $275 million of the total, including “lethal assistance”—i.e. American weapons. The funding excludes the Azov Battalion, a powerful far-right paramilitary group in Ukraine that became influential after the 2014 revolution.
Nepal will get $130 million to support its development and democracy efforts. Caught between India and China, Nepal has significant strategic value and is a key target of economic and diplomatic influence from Beijing.
Another $6 million is set aside to protect “Tibetan culture and language development” among Tibetan refugee communities in Nepal and India. This issue remains a source of tensions between the U.S. and China, which has sought to scrub Tibetan culture and separatist sentiment.
The bill also pushes back on Chinese encroachment in Hong Kong, providing $3 million for “democracy and internet freedom” and to provide “legal and other support for democracy activists” in the territory.
Burma’s $135 million will help “promote ethnic and religious tolerance” and mitigate the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority group there. The money will help “sustain ceasefire agreements and further prospects for reconciliation and peace,” the bill says.
Pakistan will be given $15 million “for democracy programs” and at least $10 million for “gender programs,” something that has prompted derision among foreign aid critics. Sen. Lindsey Graham defended this measure specifically, telling Fox News Tuesday: “If you’re a young girl in Pakistan, life is pretty tough.”
Pakistan is among the countries where the bill will support the “recruitment, training, and retention of women in the judiciary, police, and other security forces, and to train judicial and security personnel in such countries to prevent and address gender-based violence, human trafficking, and other practices that disproportionately harm women and girls.”
Cambodia, meanwhile, will get $85 million assuming it pushes back on expanding Chinese influence and claims in the South China Sea, and supports international sanctions on North Korea. The money will not be released unless government forces “cease violence and harassment against civil society and the political opposition.”
Another $506 million will go to Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama as part of the Central America Regional Security Initiative.
This project is designed to improve security in these countries, which have struggled with drug and gang related violence. This turmoil is a key driver in migration from Central America to the U.S., a key Trump grievance and central to modern American nationalism.
Other programs at risk if foreign aid is cut include the “transnational threat of wildlife poaching and trafficking,” to which the bill apportions $101 million. Support for “internet freedom in closed societies” will get $2.5 million in funding.
This file photo shows people walking past the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on December 16, 2020.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images/Getty