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Agencies Fight to Save U.S. Foreign Aid from Deep Cuts

Amanda Wilson and Rosemary D'Amour

WASHINGTON, Oct 5 2011 (IPS) - Foreign aid could be one of the first items on the chopping block as the United States struggles to address trillion- dollar deficits in the coming fiscal years, a fate U.S. international development agency officials are trying hard to avoid.

Top-level officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) teamed up with a Hollywood celebrity in Washington on Monday to urge the public and lawmakers not to cut spending on foreign aid, which they say saves lives, strengthens security, and builds economies around the world, ultimately helping the U.S. most of all.

USAID deputy administrator Donald Steinberg and the organisation’s chief economist, Steve Radelet, joined with Barbara P. Bush and actress/singer Mandy Moore this week to argue for the foreign aid agenda, which faces criticism from both policymakers and voters who often question the effectiveness of aid projects in general.

Officials say that they’re fighting not just a budgetary battle, but one of perceptions: most U.S. citizens believe that foreign aid spending is already in excess, when in reality it accounts for only one percent of the U.S. federal budget, according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Aid projects in the spotlight, at home and abroad

The forthcoming conference of the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF4) in Busan, Korea this November will put foreign aid effectiveness at the forefront of the debate.

With U.S. international development projects under scrutiny in the U.S. at home, and abroad, continued federal spending at current levels on organisations like USAID could depend on officials’ ability to make a convincing argument about the value of foreign aid.

Aid effectiveness is a major factor in the decision-making process for officials, and has been a dominant theme in discussions of international development this year, including a meeting of civil society organisations during the World Bank annual fall meetings in September as a prelude to the Busan conference.

The U.S. has already made strides towards meeting the goals set forth in the Paris Declaration by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2005, which focused heavily on results- oriented development that includes the voices of those who are affected by aid projects.

USAID officials said Monday that the organisation was running more efficiently, transparently, and with more self-evaluation than ever before and that cutting funding for the agency would mean a major backslide for international development.

“We are involved in 1,200 separate partnerships with the American people, NGOs, private companies, local governments and local NGOs,” Steinberg said. “These are ways of taking very scarce American taxpayer dollars and multiplying them.”

Steinberg said the organisation was holding itself accountable “like never before”, publishing everything that it is doing online.

In fight for aid money, an economic argument

A letter of support for foreign aid, signed by more than 100 international aid organisations in early September, urged lawmakers to avoid “deep and disproportionate” cuts to the foreign aid budget.

If a congressional super committee tasked with making at least 1.2 trillion dollars in cuts to the federal budget does not reach an agreement on where to make them, cuts will be made automatically. Fifty percent of cuts would come from security-related programmes. While the Pentagon would be the biggest target for cuts, the security budget also includes funding for USAID.

The Center for Global Development (CGD), an international development policy institute, has been a leading proponent of the idea that development promotes global stability.

Casey Dunning, a policy analyst with CGD’s Rethinking US Foreign Assistance programme, said that budget concerns may require the U.S. to focus its efforts on a smaller number of countries. Last year, USAID gave aid to over 150 countries, according to CGD. But, Dunning said, spending cuts should avoid some programmes in particular.

“I think that there is definitely a strong indication of where the cuts shouldn’t be happening,” Dunning told IPS. “If we look at the initiatives that have gotten a lot of attention in the budget and on the Hill, like the Feed the Future Initiative, these are places where we should be investing our resources.”

USAID officials Monday in Washington urged lawmakers not to put foreign aid on the chopping block, arguing instead that development money ultimately helps the U.S. economy by creating security and building healthy societies and consumers abroad.

“(Foreign aid) is giving incredible dividends in terms of making people healthier, and making markets stronger for American companies which is also helping people at home,” Scott Thompson, a spokesperson for Population Services International (PSI), a global public-private health contractor and sponsor of the event on Monday, told IPS. “It would be foolish to throw away.”

Pushing a strong economic argument that seemed targeted to win the support of even fiscal conservatives, USAID officials said one in five jobs in the U.S. is supported by exports to the developing world.

“By establishing links to these consumers today, we can effectively position American companies to sell them good tomorrow,” read a statement issued by USAID on Monday.

USAID is sponsoring the campaign to save foreign aid budget in partnership with other major foreign aid actors such as PSI, WorldVision, a Christian humanitarian organisation, and PATH, an international nonprofit.

“Up-front investment in stabilising countries saves us costs up-front in security later on,” Radelet said. “These relatively modest investments have big payoffs later on, that’s why we think it’s the most important investment we can make.”

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martina lauchengco