Over the next few days, my staff and I will spend many hours reading large sections of President Bush’s tight $2.8 trillion 2007 budget. Although the budget contains very few program expansions, spending on health assistance to other countries continues on an upward trajectory. In 2001, we spent just over $1 billion helping others abroad improve their health and development. This year, we’ll devote nearly $3.5 billion and next year, the president has proposed $4.2 billion in funding.
These programs are some of the best-spent money in the budget–they’re actually a vital contribution to the war on terror. In places where we distribute aid wisely and get our foreign partners to do their part, our health efforts can build support for freedom and provide us with a crucial weapon against terror. We can’t, however, continue to increase our spending at the same pace. Instead, we need to figure out ways to expand our efforts and realize medicine’s promise as a tool of public diplomacy–a currency for peace.
From the Middle East to Latin America, freedom’s opponents have learned that medical care can win ordinary people’s hearts and minds. In the West Bank, for example, Hamas won a majority in the recent legislative assembly races in part on the strength of the hospitals and clinics the terrorist organization operates. Cuba’s Communist regime, likewise, has earned good will in Latin America by dispatching doctors throughout the region. Even though such regimes oppose freedom, even there these efforts are fundamental tools for political outreach.
Our own efforts have realized tremendous gains by dispatching troops and medical personnel to help survivors of the South Asian tsunami and the massive Pakistani earthquake. Not all successful efforts require massive commitments of resources: I remember standing by during a heart operation on one small Iraqi girl. A long surgery ended and the child went into the recovery room. Then, her mother pulled me over and told me through a translator: “Please tell the American people thank you for their compassion and generosity.” Medical care touched her in a way that a radio broadcast, reconstruction project, or food aid never could.
We need to look for more ways to achieve results like this and thereby make real progress in the war on terror. Experience shows that doing so will require more person-to-person contacts. While its efforts have never consumed more than a tiny fraction of our foreign-aid budget, the Peace Corps provides a good example of what we might accomplish: By dispatching young, hard-working Americans all over the world, the Peace Corps has done at least as much good as efforts costing much more.
Thus, I’d like to see the president support, and the Congress pass, a bipartisan bill I wrote last year to establish a low-cost, volunteer-driven organization focused on public health–a Global Health Corps. The Corps would combine experienced doctors, nurses, and technicians with those who sign up based on a passion to serve and a willingness to learn.
In desperately poor nations that lack even the most fundamental medical facilities, Corps volunteers could save lives by showing people the importance of clean water, sanitation, and first aid. Because it would rely on committed volunteers rather than full-time employees, it would allow us to deal with these problems without busting the budget. Some volunteers would work in areas with chronic problems and others would stand ready to deploy to places that experience crises. They would serve anywhere from days, to weeks to months. Using syringes and pills rather as their weapons, they would help those on need and simultaneously advance our campaign against terrorists.
Simply funding elaborate programs can only get us so far. We need to demonstrate our commitment to health on a more personal level. And, based on my experience, I believe that a group of American medical volunteers committed to working abroad to help others could provide us with an important and cost-efficient weapon in the war on terror.