Global Policy Forum

US Must Learn from Britain and Not Cut Foreign Aid

NGOs fear that US foreign aid programs will be eliminated during the highly controversial and partisan 2012 budget talks. Currently, US foreign aid funding is considered “discretionary spending,” and some worry that it will be cut as a short-term effort to reduce the federal deficit. This Guardian article warns that these short term fixes will cost more in the long-term and lead to security, humanitarian, and global health problems. Cutting these aid initiatives would show that the US values its geopolitical interests over its humanitarian interests. It would be a shame if US with $14.6 tn GDP could not afford to contribute a small fraction of its GDP to help the rest of the world.

By Samuel A. Worthington

August 1, 2011

Current budget battles in Washington could result in an erosion of our country's "soft power" as US agencies who implement core foreign assistance programmes come under financial attack.

While specific account figures are not given in talks over raising the debt ceiling, the US NGO community fears associated cuts to what is known as "discretionary spending" will translate into less for poverty-focused development and humanitarian assistance. Talks on foreign affairs spending will be put before the House of Representatives appropriation committee on Wednesday. We can learn from Britain, where budgets are similarly strained and there is a view that targeting international development is not prudent. Money may be saved in the short-term but would lead to major security, humanitarian and global health headaches later on.

The argument that a nation with an annual GDP of $14.6tn cannot afford to invest a fraction of 1% of that to help build a safer and more prosperous world is irresponsible. But in the current political climate, foreign aid, and in particular development assistance, is an easy target.

Haggling in Congress over bills to fund the state department and foreign operations in 2012 are worrying for those of us seeking to address global poverty and climate change, and respond to famine and other disasters.

A target for many is the US agency for international development (USAid), whose attempts to reform itself risk being stymied before they have a chance to really get off the ground. Negotiations over how deep cuts should be have almost been comical. One plan seeks to stop funding the budgetary office at USAid. How can you improve aid effectiveness when the office in charge of strategic and budgeting planning has been gutted? If these funding cuts see the light of day, they will incapacitate USAid. Thankfully, cooler heads will probably prevail in the US Senate, which will help shape the final budget numbers.

Some of the deepest cuts put forward last month by House of Representatives appropriators would hack USAid and the state department development assistance funding by 18% compared with last year's level. USAid's operating expenses would be slashed by 27% and contributions to multilateral efforts to combat climate change would be cut to zero.

This budget approach comes as the Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in 60 years. Tens of thousands have already died and the United Nations estimates 11.6 million people need help.

Under the House plan, international disaster assistance will be slashed to 42% below 2009-10 levels, from $1.3bn to $758m. Such assistance is used in crises such as the one in the Horn. It provides life-saving aid for people who are literally on the brink of death. Also likely to be hit by budget trimming is USAid's Feed the Future programme, which was created to help mitigate the response to such droughts in the future.

Another concern is that proposed cuts may force the US to renege on international obligations, including funding a $22bn food and agricultural plan agreed at a G8 summit in 2009. The US, which hosts the G8 next year, has been particularly slow in paying out money under this plan. How can it sustain its position as a world leader if it fails to meet its own commitments?

As former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said recently, the budget drama weakens America's moral position and makes us more insular. "When we're talking about the fact that many of the problems we have don't have military solutions, but political and diplomatic ones, it doesn't make a lot of sense," she told the Huffington Post of proposed cuts.

Spending cuts that have the unintended effect of targeting the world's poorest populations make no sense to us either.


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