I knew that as a Roosevelt Summer Academy Fellow I would have more opportunities than the average DC intern, but I wasn’t expecting these to include an invitation to the White House. But that’s just what happened last Thursday, when I joined U.S.A.I.D. Administrator Raj Shah and twenty other young Americans to host a webchat moderated by Kalpen Modi: “How to Make Change: Open for Questions–Youth and International Development”
This is the first major event Dr. Shah has hosted addressing young people, but it signals the beginning of a move toward more student involvement, more partnerships, and more transparency. During the forty-five minute webchat Kalpen fielded questions from the audience, Facebook, and Twitter. The atmosphere was surprisingly casual, despite the fact that we were sitting around a majestic wooden conference table surrounded by portraits of former presidents, cameramen crammed into every corner. Immediately upon entering the room Dr. Shah introduced himself to each of us and after I told him I was from the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, he responded enthusiastically: “Oh, great! I’ve heard about you guys!” We settled in and soon the cameraman was counting down to go live.
The United States Agency for International Development (U.S.A.I.D.) is the primary U.S. agency to extend assistance to countries struggling after disasters, trying to escape poverty and engaging in democratic reform. So what is our role in this, as young people? Dr. Shah explained that, “young people are important because they understand that the world is fully connected,” and we have the power to “craft the world conditions in this era of development results.” In practical terms, this translates to young people contributing their technical skills to build new technology to aid the developing world, launching our own non-profits and applying for newly available USAID grants, or simply spreading awareness on our campuses and in our communities.
One simple question seemed to be looming in the room (and on the web): Why foreign assistance? With forty-four million Americans below the poverty line why should we be sending aid abroad instead of focusing on the problems in our own country? Dr. Shah began by putting it into perspective: despite the fact that most Americans believe that 20 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign assistance, in reality it is less than one-half of 1 percent. Several factors emphasize the need for developmental aid. The first is national security. As Defense Secretary Gates said, “Economic development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.” A less obvious reason is that international development can actually benefit our own economy. Solar panels used to power clinics in Uganda are built and purchased in the U.S. The last reason, and to me the most compelling, is what Dr. Shah described as our “core moral values;” as a nation and a generation with the capacity to improve the lives of millions, we must use our energy to make progress around the world. And as FDR stated, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”