U.S. House Committee Passes Measure That Would Gut UN Peacekeeping, Humanitarian Relief

The Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives passed a budget that would gut US contributions to key functions of the United Nations. From humanitarian relief and disaster response to UN Peacekeeping, the budget approved by this key committee of the US House of Representatives radically underfunds key UN agencies.

At issue is the new State Foreign Operations Funding measure, passed on Friday and sent to the floor of the entire House of Representatives. The measure would eviscerate US contributions to UN Peacekeeping, cutting it by about 25% (or more than $900 million from what the White House requested.) It also eliminates US funding for several key UN entities, including the main UN office that coordinates disaster relief, the UN Development Program, the UN Environment Program, and the UN Population Fund, which supports maternal and infant health around the world.

It’s a radical budget and could substantially alter the US relationship with the United Nations and undermine some key UN projects around the world. From the UN’s perspective, the timing of these proposed cuts are particularly worrisome.

UN Peacekeeping is stretched further than ever before, with more peacekeepers deployed around the world than any other point in history. Some of these are exceedingly complex. In Mali, UN Peacekeepers are on the frontline of the fight against violent extremism and terrorism, while also helping to ensure a fragile peace between extremist rebel groups and the government. In South Sudan, some 100,000 civilians fled to UN peacekeeping bases over the past year as the civil war erupted in the country. These peacekeepers are expected to both protect the civilians inside and outside their compound. In the Central African Republic, UN Peacekeeping is beginning to return to the country to a modicum of stability and probably prevented an all out genocide from erupting in the country last year.

Yet, despite the enormous burden carried by UN Peacekeeping to advance global security, this budget makes the job of UN peacekeeping even harder.

It gets worse.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, is the international community’s central mechanism to coordinate an alphabet soup of international agencies and NGOs involved in emergency disaster relief. When a disaster like the Nepal earthquake strikes, groups like UNICEF, Save the Children, the World Food Program, and the Red Cross, look to OCHA for direction on how to best coordinate their responses to quickly maximize impact.  OCHA also coordinates relief activities for manmade disasters, like Syria and Iraq.

This kind of central coordination for both sudden and slow burning disasters makes overall relief efforts more efficient–and this is key because donor dollars for humanitarian relief have never been more scarce than they are today. The world is experiencing an unprecedented number of large, complex and concurrent humanitarian emergencies. Earlier this year, the UN Refugee Agency said refugee flows were the highest they have been since World War Two. Yet donors have not kept up. So far, of about $19 billion required to support humanitarian activities around the world only about $5 billion has been contributed. This leaves a 73% gap.

OCHA’s motto is “coordination saves lives.” But it also certainly saves money, too, which is why the appropriations committee’s decision to cut US funding for OCHA could be profoundly counterproductive.

Other lowlights from the budget request are somewhat predictable given the ideological makeup of US Congress right now. The measure would totally eliminate US contributions to the UN Development Program, the UN Environment Program, and the UN Population Fund, which supports reproductive and maternal health around the world. The USA is currently a top contributor to each of these agencies. For example, the UNDP in 2013 received over $200 million from the USA, out of a total budget of about $4 billion. The UNFPA received $35 million from the USA, out of a budget of over $900 million.  Needless to say, if enacted, these cuts would represent a big departure from US policy of supporting these UN programs.

The one bright spot of this measure is that it does fully fund global health programs for vaccines and to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Health programs, it seems, have been spared from the partisan chopping block. That’s at least a step forward.

What’s next for this measure is unclear. The US budget process can be somewhat difficult to predict, but the Senate tends to be a bit more moderate on these funding questions, so there is a chance that some of the more drastic measures of this bill could be stripped away in future negotiations. For now, though, this is the first draft of a proposed budget for international obligations–and much of it is a radical departure from current policy.