Increase U.S. foreign aid spending? Darn right, panelists tell Las Vegas audience


Steve Marcus

Tom Ridge, former Secretary of Homeland Security, speaks during “Securing America’s Future,” a conference sponsored by the Latin Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, at the Four Seasons Wednesday, May 15, 2013.

Wed, May 15, 2013 (2:29 p.m.)

To make a point about the value of spending on foreign aid and development, former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, a man versed in the intricacies of foreign and domestic policy, invoked Tom Hanks.

Well, Ridge invoked “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the 2007 film in which Hanks portrays the former Texas congressman who worked to increase Central Intelligence Agency funding to support the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. At the end of the film when the Soviets are leaving Afghanistan, Ridge pointed out, Wilson asks for money to build roads and schools but is quickly rebuffed by a fellow congressman.

“You wonder: What happens if the Russians are out and we go in and start doing things like building roads … We didn’t even think about going in for development and assistance. Now think about how much money we’ve spent there since 2001. Think about the number of lives lost there since 2001, and you tell me it wouldn’t have been worth X number of dollars to at least try … ”

Ridge, who also served in the House of Representatives and is a former Pennsylvania governor, was the keynote speaker at a breakfast event Wednesday at the Four Seasons Las Vegas organized by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a group of more than 400 businesses and nongovernmental organizations that back increased support for the U.S. diplomatic and development efforts. The Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce also sponsored the talk, titled “Securing America’s Future.”

After Ridge’s speech, former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan, Steven Hill, executive director of the Nevada Office of Economic Development, and Ramon Torres, Latin Chamber of Commerce board member joined Ridge in a panel discussion on foreign aid and development moderated by “Ralston Reports” host Jon Ralston.

The theme of the morning was simple: Foreign aid is a good investment for the United States.

“The coalition is saying let’s not wait until disaster strikes, let’s try to get in before it strikes. Let’s try to build a stable society. Before they are interested in democratic institutions of civil society, before they are interested in a ballot, they are interested in food, clothing and shelter,” Ridge said.

Ridge lamented the lack of U.S. investment in foreign affairs, which he called a “drop in the bucket.” In fiscal year 2013, the allocation for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development was $51.6 billion, 1 percent of the total U.S. government budget. While there have been significant attempts at expanding trade and relations in Asia, Ridge said the United States was missing opportunities in Latin American and Africa.

Ridge and the other panelists emphasized that increased foreign development and outreach would help develop new markets, improve diplomatic relations and open new areas of growth for U.S. businesses.

“Ninety-five percent of the market is outside the United States. We approach this as trying to put Nevadans back to work,” Hill said.

“You can walk into an audience that doesn’t speak (English) and you say ‘Las Vegas,’ and their eyes light up,” he added while discussing a trip to Asia to build business ties. “That provides a global connectiveness that will probably never leave Nevada, which is a real benefit.”

The leading exports in Nevada are mineral deposits, slot machines and other electronics, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

“When you look at … what we really need to do to build the economy in Nevada, you see two things over and over and over again, and that’s jobs and education. Certainly in Nevada, our education has to improve,” Hill said, particularly mentioning the dearth of college graduates and students specializing in science, math, engineering and technology fields.

Hill said Office of Economic Development staff members were in Mexico and Brazil this week on networking trips, and the connections created by such travel could greatly benefit Nevada’s small- and medium-sized businesses. As an example he cited Tate Snyder Kimsey, a Las Vegas architecture firm that the Economic Development Office helped make inroads in China by securing a federal grant for a networking trip.

Torres piggybacked on Hill and referenced Todd-Avery Lenahan Design, a Las Vegas company whose business has been bolstered by foreign contracts.

“They do work all over the world, but they are based here in Las Vegas and employ people here,” Torres said. “Just like the architectural firm, they are getting contracts in China in the South Pacific and in Latin America, and everything happens in Las Vegas and that’s a service. That’s an export service … Along with tourism and mining, I think professional services of that nature are some of the leading exports of Nevada.”

At the conclusion of the discussion the panelists were asked to make the case for foreign investment in light of shifting political thought and budget constraints.

“Good times or bad there will always be some political resistance to foreign aid: ‘Oh my God, we have all these problems here, how can we spend that money overseas?’” Ridge said. “And I guess the answer has got to be … It’s a strategic investment in the long-term interests of the United States of America and future generations.”

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