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Foreign Aid Advocates Fight Cuts to Programs That ‘Save Lives’

Food assistance headed to Libya. Photo by USAID.

As annual budget decisions loom on Capitol Hill, international development advocates are pushing back against more proposed cuts to foreign aid.

Aid programs took a hit earlier this year– $8 billion was slashed from the State Department and international program budgets in the spring– and more than 200 non-governmental organizations are joining forces to call for an end to new cuts. Supporters like the ONE campaign, World Vision, PATH and Oxfam America argue that foreign aid is a smart investment that saves lives, increases global security and has a widespread impact while accounting for just 1 percent of U.S. spending.

“[Foreign aid] has already taken a disproportionate share of cuts,” said Sheila Nix, executive director of ONE. “We are in a political environment where people keep talking about cuts and not really talking about the implications of those cuts … these programs are designed to save lives.”

But with domestic economic woes dominating the conversation in Washington, politicians on both sides of the aisle are saying it’s time to do more with less as the government looks to slash spending in all areas. Critics of foreign-aid programs also question their long-term effectiveness, and say it’s high time that aid spending was reexamined.

Cuts to the Obama administration’s proposed $59.7 billion in FY2012 spending for international affairs and State Department operations are on the table in both the House and Senate. The House appropriations subcommittee’s plan cuts that request to $47.2 billion and the Senate has proposed $53.5 billion, which is less than the request but closer to the $55 billion spent in FY2010. The final number should be hashed out by the end of November.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign affairs, told The New York Times last week that the budget crisis is forcing a reassessment of foreign aid priorities. She referenced $250 million in relief aid sent to Pakistan after massive flooding in 2010.

“I said I think that’s bad policy and bad politics,” she told the Times. “What are you going to say to people in the United States who are having flooding?”

Granger told the NewsHour earlier this year that foreign aid — like other programs — will simply have to take some painful cuts in the current economic climate and likely throughout the next few years.She has said repeatedly that U.S. security interests in foreign aid need to come first.

ONE and other international aid organizations say public misperceptions of foreign aid are a major part of the programs’ political vulnerability.

Polls consistently show Americans overestimate the percentage of the U.S. budget used for foreign assistance. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey this spring showed Americans on average estimate foreign aid at 10 percent of the budget, while one in five Americans believe the level is closer to 30 percent.

See how federal spending broke down for 2010:

Source: USAID and State Department

“Politicians are reacting to a public misperception and they are often only too happy to speak out in accord with what has become a political football,” said Noam Unger, policy director of the Foreign Assistance Reform project at the Brookings Institution, who said more across-the-board cuts could be devastating for aid programs.

But critics of foreign aid such as James Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, say traditional development assistance is a broken system and Congress has good reason to examine it for cuts.

“The record of development assistance as a catalyst for long-term sustainable economic growth is abysmal,” Roberts, who advocates private-sector trade and investment as a means for economic growth in the developing world, wrote in a commentary. “As Congress considers ways to reduce the federal budget deficit, cuts to USAID and its traditional aid programs should be near the top of the list.”

ONE argues that aid cuts on the scale the House is proposing would have a direct negative impact: 1 million more children would be at risk of severe malnourishment, 500,000 people wouldn’t be able to start treatment for HIV and more than 200,000 won’t get needed malaria nets, the organization says. But the ongoing debate over funding has spurred introspection and started another conversation about reform to aid programs.

“The reality is that foreign aid could be more efficient,” Unger said, citing ties to U.S. agriculture and shipping that cost the government more to ship food aid around the globe than it would to develop agricultural capacity in the region.

The strategy in some middle-income countries that the United States still assists should also be evaluated, he said. These countries still need support in development, but aid may not be the best method.

“This budget crunch period is absolutely a time to buckle down and think about the overall way foreign assistance could be improved,” Unger said.

Aaron Emmel, a senior policy advisor at PATH, agreed in a recent editorial for Global Health Magazine.

“We face one of the most austere budget environments in our nation’s history,” he wrote, “Making the need for an efficient, accountable, transparent, effective and strategic foreign assistance policy all the more important.”

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