Waves of opposition slam Trump proposal to cut foreign aid

USAID's DART team procures hygiene items for ebola response. (Sarah McElroy, USAID)

The Trump administration unveiled a budget that increases military spending by 10 percent by cutting to other government programs. An array of leaders from the military to nonprofits are upset that the foreign aid budget will suffer cuts as part of the plan.

“We recognize that America’s strategic investments in diplomacy and development – like all of U.S. investments – must be effective and accountable. Significant reforms have been undertaken since 9/11, many of which have been embodied in recent legislation in Congress with strong bipartisan support,” stated an open letter signed by 121 retired military leaders, including Gen. David Petraeus. “We urge you to ensure that resources for the International Affairs Budget keep pace with the growing global threats and opportunities we face. Now is not the time to retreat.”

Trump seeks to increase military spending by $54 billion next year. The details of the budget have not been revealed, but administration officials said they would make cuts in other parts of the government to avert increasing overall federal government spending. Money would come from agencies such as the State Department, IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Reports indicate a cut of 30 percent to 40 percent for the State Department budget, which is where foreign aid money is allocated. Despite the concerns, it is unlikely Trump’s budget would pass Congress. The Obama administration proposed budgets that made modest cuts to foreign assistance, but Congress maintained spending levels Congress each year. There is strong bipartisan support for aid, especially for global health spending. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a vocal global health supporter and has criticized the proposed cuts.

Others agree with Rubio, arguing the cuts will do more harm than good.

“Drastically cutting foreign assistance takes the United States in the wrong direction, both from a moral standpoint and a national security one. The sources of conflict often include poverty and lack of opportunity,” Pierre Ferrari, president and CEO of Heifer International, said in a statement to Humanosphere.

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The $42 billion spent on foreign assistance each year is less than 1 percent of the federal budget – a sum that has little impact on the federal deficit. The president couched his budget proposal in terms of trimming government spending. The promise of a smaller government and more robust defense and law enforcement fulfill campaign promises.

“We’re going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people.  We can do so much more with the money we spend,” Trump told to the National Governors Association this week. “With $20 trillion in debt – can you imagine that – the government must learn to tighten its belt, something families all across the country have had to learn to do, unfortunately. But they’ve had to learn to do it, and they’ve done it well.”

The U.S. defense budget is by far the largest in the world. Further, only Russia and Saudi Arabia spend more money on defense as a percentage of GDP than the United States. When he served as the head of the U.S. Central Command, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that the focus of U.S. foreign policy cannot focus on defense.

“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” he said, according to the open letter.

Michael Gerson and former USAID head Raj Shah argued in the Washington Post today for a more rigorous U.S. foreign policy. They concede that there are areas for improvement, but retreating from the world is not the answer. Citing successes in Colombia and elsewhere, Gerson and Shah wrote that foreign aid is a vital tool to national security.

“Many of our most dangerous global challenges – such as terrorism, the drug trade and pandemic diseases – gather strength in countries, or regions within countries, that are poorly governed, often corrupt, and marked by high levels of poverty, hunger and disease,” they wrote. “These places are incubators of risks to the United States.”

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Trump said during the campaign that he would “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.” But critics say that a smaller State Department makes the country less safe. Jeremy Konyndyk, the former head of USAID’s disaster relief team‏, said that the Department of Defense would have to take on tasks eliminated from the State Department. That means getting an agency to start doing work that it never did before, which likely adds cost and is less effective.

As an example, Konyndyk cited the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Defense was asked to carry out support services for Ebola clinics. They estimated a cost of $200 million for the project. Konyndyk and his team found a contractor who could complete the work faster and at half the cost because their focus is emergency relief work.

“President Trump campaigned on keeping Americans safe. Unfortunately, cuts to development and humanitarian assistance programs will do the opposite. Health, nutrition, education and other programs help create stronger communities – building goodwill for the United States. This is the kind of diplomacy that can help prevent conflict in the first place,” Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, said in a statement. “At a time of looming famine in parts of Africa and continued conflict in the Middle East, the international affairs budget must keep pace with these growing needs for American leadership and assistance. As many of our country’s military leaders are telling us, it is neither right nor smart to turn away from the rest of the world.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.