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Federal disaster aid for Puerto Rico isn’t foreign aid — but Trump acts that way

- October 13, 2017

Puerto Rico was back in the news Thursday — this time because of a series of tweets from President Trump that “Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend….” and the warning that federal relief was not open-ended.

Disaster assistance, like humanitarian assistance and other forms of foreign aid, is political. In the modern era, media coverage often drives the government’s response to natural disasters.

And many Americans don’t support providing this type of emergency assistance to non-Americans. Surveys show again and again that many Americans believe the U.S. government spends too many taxpayer dollars helping foreigners, when it should be doing more at home. Even the most altruistic forms of foreign aid come under pressure: 45 percent of Americans support cutting humanitarian assistance.

Trump’s recent tweets on Puerto Rico echo much of the criticism often leveled against foreign disaster and humanitarian assistance. Despite the fact that Puerto Rico is not a foreign country (though many Americans think it is), the president seems insistent on treating it like one.

However, many of these criticisms are often based on a few common misperceptions about emergency assistance:

Misperception 1: Local governments need to do more to prepare for disasters

This criticism is flawed for two reasons. First, local governments inevitably do prepare for natural disasters, but some areas of the world simply are more disaster-prone than others. While Houston was flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, in Bangladesh over 8 million people were affected by widespread flooding.

Bangladesh faces the risk of flooding during monsoon season each year, and significant disaster reduction efforts may have helped lower the death toll from this year’s floods. But the risk of increasingly severe storms means that disaster preparedness is a moving target. In Puerto Rico, Maria made direct landfall as a Category 4 hurricane — the strength of the storm, not the local government’s preparations (or lack thereof), led to the widespread devastation.

Second, was infrastructure in Puerto Rico worse than it could have been? Sure. But that makes it no different than many parts of the world, including the U.S. mainland. Like its Caribbean neighbor, Haiti, which was devastated by a 2010 earthquake, Puerto Rico does not have sufficient building codes that could have helped mitigate the effects of this disaster.

But the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act,” or PROMESA, subjects Puerto Rico’s finances to a federal oversight board. This means that the local government has a limited say as to where and how its resources are invested. In Puerto Rico’s case, preparing the island for the next natural disaster will require significant foresight and proactive resource management by the federal government.

Misperception 2: Short-term emergency assistance doesn’t help with long-term problems

It is true that the disaster relief being provided to Puerto Rico won’t fix its other structural challenges, which include massive government debt and financial mismanagement. But disaster relief will help save lives and reestablish basic commerce on the island — a necessary precondition for tackling long-term problems.

Following the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed the lives of 235,000 people in Indonesia’s Aceh province alone, USAID established a special tsunami relief program. USAID’s efforts in Aceh included resources for enhanced disaster planning and response, but also provided essential basic supplies, like water and shelter, in an environment where people lost everything.

Aid to Puerto Rico is not foreign aid, but this type of emergency assistance is an important first step, and one that will allow the local government to turn its attention to other pressing issues, such as Puerto Rico’s liquidity crisis, that ultimately affect long-term development. Without the $4.9 billion loan just passed in the House of Representatives, Puerto Rico would struggle to find the resources to rebuild.

Misperception 3: Assistance creates dependency — which sounds like entitlements

U.S. foreign assistance has been criticized for undercutting local capacity and creating aid dependence. A country is considered to be dependent on aid when it can’t perform some of the core functions of government, like providing basic public services such as health care and education without foreign assistance.

Some critics are now using the disaster relief efforts as an occasion to argue that Puerto Rico is too dependent on U.S. government assistance. While emphasizing the dire humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan also mentioned that, “Yes, we need to make sure that Puerto Rico can begin to stand on its own two feet …”

But emergency disaster assistance is not the same as long-term development assistance. The loan the House of Representatives approved is just that — a loan, not a handout. And the food, water and generators that are desperately needed will allow Puerto Ricans to get back to their normal lives sooner rather than later.

Disaster aid for Puerto Rico isn’t foreign aid — but it plays that way on TV

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to put America first by slashing foreign aid and scaling back U.S. international commitments. His public approach to disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico now looks like an extension of that message — and another effort to reassure his base about these campaign promises.

A recent poll found that support for further aid to Puerto Rico increased the most among Republicans and Trump voters who were prompted with the knowledge that Puerto Ricans are, in fact, fellow American citizens. The recent spate of tweets may be a good time to remind Americans of this fact.

The politicization of disaster relief in Puerto Rico also provides a good opportunity to educate the many Americans who don’t actually know how small a percentage of the federal budget foreign assistance represents — 1 percent — or how far a relatively small amount of aid can go in saving lives and helping nations recover from disasters.

Proponents of U.S. foreign aid know that the United States is unmatched in its ability and willingness to marshal American resources in response to disasters, natural or man-made, worldwide. Puerto Rico is a good opportunity to showcase this ability here at home.

Jessica Trisko Darden is assistant professor of international affairs at American University’s School of International Service and Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow her @triskodarden.