America can change the world with foreign aid, just ask Bill Gates

Foreign aid is often a sticky wicket in an election year. That's especially true in 2012 with an anemic economic recovery and problems of our own here on U.S. soil.

With the budget process underway, supporters and skeptics of the current budget levels of foreign aid are making persuasive arguments.

While I’m a supporter of continued foreign aid levels, I fully agree we can and should be smarter about the aid that we send overseas and that we need to be clear about why we’re sending it.

With a clearly explained mission and strategy, I believe more people would support the programs. -- It's true that freer and healthier nations make better decisions and better allies in the world. We need more of them and they need our help to achieve their goals.

America is an exceptional nation, generous and compassionate through government and non-profit or religious organization support. Some people may be surprised to learn that only one percent of the federal budget is dedicated to foreign aid and that it makes up only .2 percent of GDP.

To some, that figure still may be too high, while to others it might seem low. But hard-earned dollars are hard-earned dollars and none of it should go to waste or corruption in foreign lands.

That’s why there’s been a push over the years to tie aid to results, to require progress in fighting corruption, and to make sure the aid is getting to the people who need it most. For example, sending vaccines and providing a delivery mechanism ensures a dictator can’t use it to his advantage – you can’t turn vaccines on your people.

Another trend in foreign aid has been government leveraging the considerable resources of some of our most successful Americans. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and his wife established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation several years ago. Together they have dedicated a large share of their fortune and nearly all of their time to helping alleviate poverty.

In a conversation with Gates last week when he was in Washington, D.C. to talk to people about the foreign aid budget, I asked him how he explains to skeptics that there is a strong return on investment.

Here’s one of his examples:

“If you look at a country like Pakistan, [which has] 185 million people, if work is not done to improve health and nutrition there, that population will more than double and they’ll have a tough time feeding their people, so there is immense instability in a country that is strategically quite important.

The expense of us doing our part to help with vaccines and farming assistance will make the people healthier and it won’t grow nearly as much.

It’s a tiny piece of government investment for big potential gains. Providing soft power earlier, before a major humanitarian crisis, is likely to get a positive reception, at least not a negative reception, to this type of intervention."

Gates points to the success stories of Malaysia, Brazil and Thailand as examples of countries that got the majority of aid in the 1960s but aren’t getting aid now. Just think, Brazil is now set to host the World Cup and the Olympics – unthinkable a couple of decades ago.

I also asked Gates to reflect on the first years of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and how he keeps his sights on the big goals.

Here's what he said:

“The key in this work is to be in touch with that individual human need and to also be in touch with the numbers – in the year 2000, over 11 million children under the age of 5 died, last year less than 8 million died, and with things in the pipeline, we’ll get that down to 4 million.

It’s not to zero yet, but that shouldn’t make us impatient.

We’re reducing children death faster now than ever in history – even how we do delivery (educating mothers, for example, is very important) – progress is pretty incredible.

We need to tell the success stories, because they’re really out there.

[I'm] enjoying the work now more than ever.

It is slightly discouraging, wondering if the needs of the poorest be remembered while the world’s richest countries struggle economically. What [policy] will prevail [in the future]? [Will it be] the UK example of adding to its foreign budget because of a long-term strategic decision about the future, or the position that “we don’t see it, so not our problem."

Gates told me he’s excited about the progress, and that 10 years from now, these countries will be even better than they are today.

I believe that Gates is right about that and that foreign aid programs will be more effective when they are partnered with private sector, non-profit models.

I hope that our economy starts growing again. That we have the guts to finally address our entitlement programs. And to put them on sustainable paths, at a rate that allows us to keep the funding levels we have, while not cutting our military.

To me, foreign aid can help with missions – and perhaps even prevent future ones from being necessary.

Dana Perino is a former White House Press Secretary. She is a Fox News contributor and co-host of “The Five” which airs weekdays at 5 pm ET on Fox News Channel.