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Obama Requests Modest Bump in Foreign Aid

WASHINGTON, Apr 11 2013 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday asked Congress to approve some 52 billion dollars in foreign aid and international spending in 2014, slightly higher than the current year’s budget which was cut due to the partisan impasse over how to reduce the yawning federal deficit.

Among other provisions, the new proposal calls for modest increases in global health and development assistance, as well as cuts in military aid to foreign countries and in special contingency funding for so-called “front-line states” — Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The proposal also calls for major reform – which is likely to prove controversial in Congress — of the U.S. food-aid programme both to save money in shipping and other costs and encourage greater investment in food production and security in recipient countries.

A number of development and humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in poor countries expressed guarded relief at the proposed foreign-aid budget, which was unveiled as part of a total 3.8-trillion-dollar federal budget package that will now be taken up by Congress.

“At first glance, I am pleased to see President Obama’s sustained overall commitment to poverty-focused development,” said Samuel Worthington, president of InterAction, a coalition of nearly 200 NGOs. “Even in a time of belt-tightening, the U.S. must maintain its moral leadership in helping the world’s most poor and vulnerable.”

He and other NGO leaders appealed for lawmakers in Congress, who approved budget resolutions for international affairs spending earlier this year that are well below the administration’s request, to reconsider their position. Last month, the House of Representatives approved a resolution that provided only 38.7 billion dollars for the international affairs base budget – a 25-percent cut from 2012.

“As budget negotiations continue, tough choices must be made, but it is imperative to support robust funding for interventions that are both cost-effective and save lives, like maternal health, food security and emergency humanitarian response,” said Adam Taylor, vice president of World Vision, a major relief group.

As in the past, the proposed international affairs budget, which funds the State Department and the Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as U.S. contributions to the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, accounts for only slightly more than one percent of the total federal budget and about slightly less than 10 percent of the Pentagon’s proposed spending.

Under the administration’s proposal, the Defence Department would receive 527 billion dollars – more than the world’s next 20 biggest military establishments combined — for its core 2014 budget. That total does not include an estimated 88 billion dollars to fund continuing military operations in Afghanistan.

Advocates of aid and diplomacy have long complained about the imbalance – which worsened considerably under President George W. Bush (2001-09) – between Washington’s “hard” and “soft power” spending.

“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” the head of the U.S. Central Command (CentCom), Gen. James Mattis, warned senators just in testimony last month.

Wednesday’s release of the proposed budget begins a process of negotiation involving the Republican-dominated House and the Democratic-led Senate — as well as the administration — that is certain to last most of this year and possibly well into 2014, particularly given the persistent inability of the parties to agree on a long-term deficit-reduction plan.

Failure to reach such an accord this year will almost certainly result in another round of major across-the-board cuts in all discretionary spending.

The proposed 52-billion-dollar international affairs budget includes an overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund of 3.8 billion dollars mainly for State Department and USAID activities in the three “front-line states”, as well as 48.2 billion dollars in core spending. While the latter figure is slightly more than the current year’s total, it represents a decline of nearly 15 percent compared to 2010.

While proposed funding levels overall are roughly the same as this year’s, the request includes some significant changes in the way the funds will be allocated.

In light of the killings last September in Benghazi of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and two members of his staff, the budget for embassy security will increase by 55 percent, or almost 900 million dollars. Contributions to international peacekeeping are slated to rise by nearly 10 percent, in part due to anticipated costs of a U.N. presence in Mali and Syria, as well as a new African Union mission in Somalia.

Bilateral development assistance would increase by five percent over 2013 levels to nearly three billion dollars, while global health programmes, the biggest component of which is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), will increase by about 3.4 percent to some 8.3 billion dollars.

The proposed budget would also provide 580 million dollars to a new Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund that would be designed to encourage countries to implement democratic and economic reforms in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. Obama had proposed 700 million dollars for a similar facility but Congress declined to fund it.

Some of the most notable reductions, on the other hand, include a nine-percent cut in the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) account, which provides credits and guarantees for foreign countries to buy U.S. military goods; and much bigger declines in aid to poor countries in Europe and Central Asia, as well as the “front-line states” of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Compared to 2012, aid to Eurasia will be reduced by almost half. The budget for State Department and USAID operations in the three front-line states is due to fall from 11.2 billion dollars just two years ago to 6.1 billion dollars in 2014, with Iraq taking the brunt of the cuts.

Some relief groups expressed concern about proposed major cuts in humanitarian and international disaster assistance, although changes in the food-aid programme are theoretically supposed to help compensate.

For the current year, Congress has appropriated 5.6 billion dollars for international disaster aid, migration and refugee assistance, and the Food for Peace programme. But the proposed budget provides a combined total of only 4.1 billion dollars for those accounts, including a reformed food-aid programme, according to Jeremy Kadden, InterAction’s senior legislative manager. “It’s a huge cut, and we don’t have an explanation for it yet,” he told IPS.

“The U.S. has long been generous in assisting those whose lives have been shattered by conflict and disaster, but humanitarian-assistance funding in President Obama’s budget is unlikely to keep up with global needs,” said George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee.

“We hope the House and Senate will provide robust humanitarian assistance in next year’s budget, and toward that end we look forward to working closely with Congress.”

On multilateral agencies, a number of which have also played major roles in providing humanitarian assistance, U.S. contributions would remain mostly unchanged from current levels, which is also of concern to some groups.

“In an increasingly complex world with new crises breaking out every year, is consistent support going to be enough?” asked Don Kraus, who heads Citizens for Global Solutions.

“It is still unclear if this budget will give the White House enough resources to respond to global emergencies or increase the U.N.’s capacity to play a more effective role in the world,” he added, noting that this could be a major topic of discussion when Obama meets at the White House Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

 
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