The White House Budget Contains Gratuitous Cuts to Humanitarian Relief, Global Health and the United Nations

The White House budget released today contains massive cuts to the foreign affairs budget. Overall, the proposed FY18 budget is a 32 percent cut over FY 17 levels, from $59.1 billion in FY’17 to $40.1 billion in FY’18, per figures provided by the Better World Campaign.

You do not get these huge cuts without causing some major disruptions.

This includes a serious blow to the traditional role of the United States as a leader in fighting extreme poverty around the world and securing global partnerships to advance common security interests. These cuts, if implemented, would make it much harder for the United States to advance its interests around the world while simultaneously inflicting hardship and misery on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

On the security front, the White House budget seeks a 37% reduction in the account that funds UN Peacekeeping operations around the world. There are currently about 100,000 blue helmets serving in 16 missions around the world. (Fewer than 80 peacekeeping personnel are American.) These peacekeepers serve in places like Mali, which is currently fighting an Islamist insurgency; the Central African Republic, which is trying to keep a lid on ethnic violence; and the DRC, which faces deep security challenges. The United States, by virtue of its seat on the Security Council, has deemed that sending UN Peacekeepers to keep a lid on conflict in the interest of global peace and security. If the USA enacts these drastic cuts, these peacekeeping missions will fail. Soldiers will not deploy. Equipment cannot be procured. Fuel cannot be purchased. As a result, the conflicts into which Blue Helmets are sent may metastasize into something much worse than they already are.

The budget also contains big cuts to the accounts that pay for American contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is the UN program that includes nuclear weapons monitoring and is keeping a close watch on Iran’s nuclear program. Just last month, the US representative to the IAEA praised the organization’s work as “essential to building international assurance that Iran’s nuclear program is and remains exclusively peaceful.” And should a deal ever be reached with North Korea, it is certain that the deal would include Pyongyang re-admitting IAEA inspectors into the country. Still, the budget for the Contributions to International Organizations Account, which includes funding for UN agencies like the IAEA drops from $1.359 billion to $996 million a 27 percent cut.  The World Health Organization, which is on the front line coordinating fights against infectious that know no borders — diseases like ebola, zika, or avian influenza — is also massively impacted by this cut.

Beyond hard security issues, the budget massively shrinks or eliminates US aid and development programs, including key global health initiatives. There is a $2 billion cut to global health programs, which is just over 26% of its budget. This includes zeroing out reproductive health assistance, of which the United States has traditionally be a big funder for low income countries.

Emergency humanitarian relief does not fair much better.

The budget proposal eliminates a key $1.5 billion emergency food aid program known as “Title II of PL480,” even as the United Nations is issuing famine warnings in Yemen, Northern Nigeria and Somalia. A famine has already been declared in South Sudan. “The administration may seek to fund food aid through other USAID disaster accounts,” writes Michel Gabuadan, the President of Refugees International but he writes “the Administration’s proposal is not providing adequate monies for that purpose.” Gabaudan also notes that a special State Department humanitarian fund, the “Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance” is being zeoroed out to the tune of $50 million despite the fact that it “is one of the few State Department sources of genuinely flexible humanitarian resources.”


Taken together, these cuts are a profound abdication of US global leadership.

Overall, the foreign affairs budget is a small part of the overall US budget. Foreign aid, for example, accounts for just  1% of overall US government spending. But for that small sum, the world often looks to the United States for leadership and defers to the Washington to make key decisions on that affect the entire world. The United States uses that leverage to bend the arc of international relations towards its own interests.

The good news is that much of this budget will not fly. Congress, which must ultimately, approve any budget has a much more nuanced view of US foreign aid spending.  We can expect that members of congress–from both parties– will push back hard many of these cuts. Still, as a starting point for negotiations with the White House this budget document is an extreme deviation from the traditional role of the United States in the world.

UPDATE:  The NGO community is up in arms. This is a sampling of statements that have landed in my inbox today.

The group of organizations that provide humanitarian relief and support US global cooperation are harshly critical of this budget.

From the International Rescue Committee:

“The cuts to foreign aid proposed by the Administration endanger millions of lives around the world – as well as American global leadership. With 65 million displaced around the world, a sweeping global famine affecting 30 million people, rising insecurity and disease outbreaks, forward-leaning foreign aid is of indispensable importance. The IRC calls on Congress to protect and support the International Affairs budget at no less than $60 billion for FY18 and to increase refugee resettlement to at least 75,000, strengthening US foreign policy, maintaining a critical lifeline to millions and protecting global safety and security in the face of urgent global challenges.’

From Save the Children:

“The proposed cuts to foreign assistance would reverse the bipartisan progress the United States has made in helping millions of children survive and thrive around the world,” said Carolyn Miles, president & CEO of Save the Children. “The budget includes cuts to programs that reduce food insecurity, provide access to immunization and other critical health services for children, prevent malnutrition and stunting, provide educational opportunities to children, and reach children in dire humanitarian crises. These programs not only represent American values but help ensure children everywhere have the childhood they deserve.”

From the Better World Campaign:

“The United Nations and its agencies make America safer, stronger, and more prosperous. However, the proposed cuts to the UN outlined in the Administration’s budget request are highly problematic, as they would, if enacted, greatly undermine a range of peacekeeping operations and global health and humanitarian assistance programs that save lives and further U.S. interests.

“These cuts are also counter-productive as they would undermine American leadership in New York and make it much more difficult to promote UN reform and foster international cooperation on challenges that threaten the United States.”