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Will the US foreign aid budget continue its decline?

US Foreain Aid snapshot

An increase in the foreign affairs budget for 2014 saw an end to a four year decline in the US. Discussions are now taking place over the Fiscal Year 2015 budget and the downward trend may resume.

That is what will happen if Rep Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal wins out. If President Obama gets his way, funds will hold steady at $44.1 billion. While it looks likely that foreign aid will be safe from cuts, thanks to is strong supporters, being back on the chopping block is a cause for concern for foreign aid supporters.

Ryan’s cuts into foreign aid appear to be based more on a belief that it is an unnecessary expenditure. The proposed Ryan budget led to public cries to protect the US foreign aid budget. Supporters like to point out that it represents less than 1% of the total federal budget.

Making cuts to such a small program will do little to help reduce US government debt and will harm the people who benefit from US aid work. Ryan has acknowledged this fact in the past, but continues to propose cuts. Foreign aid advocates are pushing against Ryan’s plan by pointing to the damage it will cause to US foreign policy interests.

“Now is not the time to cut America’s vital tools of national security given the growing number of hotspots around the globe,” said General Anthony Zinni, Co-Chair of U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s National Security Advisory Council. “The International Affairs Budget has already seen large reductions in the past few years, and now is not the time to diminish America’s leadership in the world.”

The White House plan for FY2015 maintains spending levels for foreign aid, but includes some notable shifts. More money would be made available for peacekeeping operations, a response to instability in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Humanitarian assistance will fall, in large part due to the lack of global need for food aid, and global health will see across the board cuts.

Ryan has made his name over the past years as a federal budget hawk. He has garnered praise and derision from his political supporters and opponents, respectively. Most notably, Ryan has put forth various budget drafts that seek to reign in the spending of the US government. In each proposal, foreign aid has seen its budget trimmed.

While speaking little on the issue of foreign aid itself, Ryan has made his skepticism of US social programs well known. He has criticized the dependency that is created by such programs, arguing that they have done more harm than good for Americans.

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” said Ryan in a recent radio interview.

White House global health requests
White House global health request breakdown


Everyone is not happy with the White House plan, though nobody is ever completely happy with the US foreign aid budget. Despite that, foreign aid supporters are more concerned with fending off potential cuts.

However the credibility of US foreign aid work took a big hit last week when the Associated Press reported on a program that created a Twitter-like social network in Cuba, meant for enabling political dissent and activism. Sen Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a long supporter of US foreign aid, was extremely critical of the program, run by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). A hearing with the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Leahy, saw USAID Administrator Raj Shah take hard questions and criticisms from the members in attendance.

While Leahy’s concerns about USAID’s work in Cuba garnered most media attention, he was more pointed with his criticisms about the agency as a whole.

“I have always assumed it is sustainable development, and I am sure, Dr. Shah, you would agree. But today, USAID’s strength seems to be saving lives, feeding people, technological innovation, and other such things that are unquestionably important. Many of them I strongly support,” said Leahy in his prepared remarks.

“I don’t want to overgeneralize, but these activities are often not the same as building institutions and organizations, owned and run by foreign governments and communities, which to me is what real development – sustainable development – is about.”

By appearances, USAID is shifting towards the definition of sustainable development as laid out by Leahy.

“We’ve revamped our budget to include more rigorous performance monitoring and impact evaluation, expanded the use of science, technology, and public‐private partnerships, and improved talent management,” said Shah at the appropriations hearing.

Reporting by Sam Loewenberg for The Lancet on attempts to achieve food security in arid northern Kenya showed that the rhetoric and reality of USAID’s work are not at the same point. Loewenberg saw that investments in improving food security for people in region were not delivering on their promises. One of those projects was a favorite of Shah’s, USAID’s Feed the Future program.

Pressure has been placed on the foreign aid budget for a few years now. It appears that the decline in funding has been arrested for at least a short period of time, but changing priorities will threaten what progress has been made. Despite having some troubles, programs like Feed the Future and the new development lab are representative of long needed shifts in US foreign aid policy.


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]