U.S. foreign aid: Few details amid reports of plan to cut and restructure USAID

Students at Harmala School - Bethlehem (Credit: USAID/flickr)

The Trump administration appears to be planning a major restructure of the U.S. aid agency.

Money for USAID would shift to the State Department as a part of the White House effort to streamline the federal government, according to a leaked budget document obtained by Foreign Policy. The move creates new concern and uncertainty about the future of U.S. foreign aid in the wake of proposed program cuts.

For now, there are more questions than answers. There remain many open positions at USAID with no indication if or when the administration will appoint people to those roles. And the administration has yet to detail its foreign aid policies, with many people doing their best to make guesses based on budget proposals.

“There is a real risk at speculating,” Scott Morris, the director of the U.S. Development Policy Initiative at the Center for Global Development, told Humanosphere. “In a sense, numbers don’t lie but they don’t tell the whole story.”

And when it comes to budget numbers, the administration will need cooperation from Congress to make any major changes to aid programs that have enjoyed long-standing bipartisan support. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has already declared Trump’s proposed budget that cuts foreign aid by 30 percent “dead on arrival” before it was officially released.

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“At the end of the day Congress does appropriate federal funds,” Morris said.”It is fair to say [the Trump administration]are not going to get what they ask for.”

That reality does not allay concerns about the intent behind the proposal.

What the numbers do show are cuts to programs and the movement of money from the Development Assistance fund to the Economic Support Fund. Doing so essentially guts the foreign aid budget in favor of funding diplomatic programs. It is similar to a change made by Henry Kissinger when he served as Secretary of State during the Nixon administration.

Oxfam officials said they are “alarmed” by the plan to cut and restructure the foreign aid program. Oxfam officials also echoed Morris’s concerns that the administration doesn’t appear to have a clear plan. Making cuts for seemingly arbitrary reasons can do more harm than good, Oxfam America Vice President for Policy and Campaigns Paul O’Brien said.

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“It’s shocking to see such a careless dismissal of our nation’s development resources and responsibility at a moment of unprecedented global crisis,” O’Briend said in a statement. “Congress must stand against this reckless move to walk away from one of America’s proudest and smartest investments. … Now is not the time to cut back on development, but to build on progress to make it even more effective.”

Trump signed an executive order in March that sought to streamline the executive branch and cut government spending. USAID staff told Foreign Policy that the order may include incorporating USAID into the State Department.

“I think behind the numbers is what appears to be a clear structural shift and on that, I think it is pretty concerning,” Morris said.

Vocal opposition from members of Congress and foreign aid advocates does not sway the administration. The budget document details cuts to programs in 41 countries. Global health programs would see a 25 percent reduction and the Bureau for Food Security would see a 68 percent cut.

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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.