President Barack Obama is scheduled to be in the Seattle area tomorrow, as part of a West Coast campaign fund-raising push.
Given this city’s largely liberal and Democratic bent, Obama is likely to be warmly welcomed and celebrated. But our local humanitarian and aid community may not be so welcoming and friendly — given Obama’s proposed budget cutbacks to U.S. foreign aid, disaster relief and global health.
Here’s one such perspective from Joy Portella of Mercy Corps in Seattle:
This week, President Obama submitted his 2013 budget request to Congress. This request included the international affairs budget, which among other things, provides aid for impoverished families around the world.
Foreign assistance amounts to less than 1 percent of the total budget. That may shock many Americans who think we spend 5 or 10 percent – or even more – on aid.
President Obama’s request for foreign assistance is a mixed bag. Overall, the President would like to increase the aid budget by 2 percent over what he proposed last year. On one level, that looks like a strong commitment to the world’s poor, but a closer look at the numbers reveals something different.
If the President’s proposed budget is accepted, the United States’ ability to help families grappling with poverty, famine or natural disaster would be seriously undermined – at the same time that needs are growing around the globe.
For example, President Obama has requested that grants from Food for Peace, the primary account that provides food aid, would be decreased by 5 percent or nearly $300 million from his request just a year ago. That would happen as millions of men, women and children in the Horn of Africa continue to struggle with a food and water crisis, and millions more are at risk from a growing drought in the Sahel.
This isn’t just about food. If the President’s request is adopted, international disaster assistance would be decreased by $15 million, and aid to refugees and migrants would drop by a whopping $250 million. Those cuts could seriously impede our ability to respond to disasters such as the Haiti earthquake, or to help hundreds of thousands of victims of conflict in places like Sudan.
These are tough times, and it’s understood that scrutiny of government programs will be more intense than ever.
But the President’s proposed cuts don’t add up. They would significantly reduce our ability to help the world’s poorest people but wouldn’t even put a dent in the nation’s deficit. Taxpayer dollars could be better saved by reforming aid to make it more effective and efficient than wholesale slashing of programs that save lives.
Take food, for example: If U.S. aid policy were less focused on the expensive and often inefficient process of shipping American-grown food to far-flung corners of the earth, the savings would be significant.
Often the problem in a food crisis isn’t a total absence of wheat or rice or oil, but people can’t afford to buy those goods at market, or food is available – but across the country or in the next country over. If more aid consisted of goods that were bought locally or provided in the form of cash to let families purchase what they need, more food could get to hungry people faster at a lower cost.
If the U.S. wants to maintain its historic role as a leader in responding to global crises, we cannot afford to scale back aid that helps people who are most in need around the world. We need to get smarter about how we spend, not make quick cuts that have bad long-term consequences.
Joy Portella is the Seattle-based director of communications at the global humanitarian agency Mercy Corps.