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Aid groups warn of human cost of sequester

Aid groups warn of human cost of sequester

Forty international humanitarian organizations are warning that the impending arbitrary budget cuts known as the "sequester" will have dire consequences for people in crisis situations in the world’s most conflict-affected areas.

The across-the-board budget cuts set to go into effect March 2 would force the State Department to cut $200 million from humanitarian assistance accounts and $400 million from global health funding, Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in a letter to Congress this week.

"Such a reduction would hinder our ability to provide life saving food assistant to 2 million people and USAID would have to cease, reduce, or not initiate assistance to millions of disaster affected people," Kerry wrote.

He added that cuts in global health funding would hurt State and USAID’s efforts to stamp out AIDS abroad and hamper efforts to prevent child deaths.

"Such cuts undermine our efforts to shape the broader international efforts to fight disease and hunger, invest in global health, and foster more stable societies," said Kerry.

A coalition of aid groups including CARE, Catholic Relief Services, InterAction, the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Refugees International, World Vision, and many others delivered a letter to the White House and Congress Wednesday pointing out that 2013 has already been a year where the resources devoted to humanitarian assistance have been strained to the breaking point.

"Humanitarian needs resulting from conflicts and natural disasters around the world have increased dramatically over the course of the last year," the groups wrote in their open letter. "We write to express deep concern that current resource levels for humanitarian assistance are not sufficient to meet these challenges, which will prove harmful to both U.S. interests and millions of vulnerable people requiring lifesaving assistance. Therefore we urge Congress to ensure that the levels approved for the remainder of Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 are commensurate with humanitarian need."

The crisis in Syria has worsened considerably since the Obama administration last submitted a budget request in February 2012, the groups said. Now, more than 770,000 refugees have poured into neighboring countries, and that number is expected to increase.

"This strain is compounded by urgent new needs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, evolving crises in Mali and Sudan and ongoing food insecurity in the Sahel. It is also cause for great concern regarding how a response would be mounted if another disaster were to strike during the 2013 fiscal year," the groups wrote. "This escalation of humanitarian needs comes as sequestration threatens to further curtail available humanitarian resources." 

The groups are asking that when Congress puts together the next continuing resolution, a temporary bill to fund the government, at the end of March, the changing needs for humanitarian assistance are taken into account. They are also asking that increased funding for humanitarian assistance not come from within the existing international affairs budget, which is already facing extreme tension due to sequestration.

"Without these alterations we fear that the U.S. agencies that oversee humanitarian response will be put in an impossible position, choosing between saving lives in one country over another," the letter states. 

If sequester goes into effect March 2, the administration and congressional appropriators are already planning to reorder the cuts by including a list of "anomalies" in the next continuing resolution, which will need to be passed by the end of March. Usually, continuing resolutions simply extend funding at the same levels, but this year is different. The "anomalies" are individual changes to certain accounts that will allow appropriators to reorder the cuts in the sequester and save or punish individual programs.

All federal agencies have already submitted a list of requested anomalies to the White House Office of Management and Budget. OMB passed back its edits of those lists to various agencies this week. At the end of some further intraadministration negotiations, the White House will send a formal list of anomaly requests to appropriators for their consideration as they prepare the new continuing resolution. 

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that "there’s a great deal of activity in this White House with regards to the sequester, and there will continue to be."

The White House hasn’t yet submitted a fiscal 2014 budget request, which is typically sent to Congress the first week of February. Carney said the impetus was on Congress, which he noted is out of town this week, to pass a measure to delay the sequester before March 2.

"I am entirely sure that we will continue to engage with Congress, including the leaders in Congress, on this issue at every level," Carney said. "But the issue here isn’t, as I said yesterday, sitting around the table or sitting in some chairs here in the West Wing. It’s Congress and congressional leaders, congressional Republicans making a choice between allowing the sequester to kick in with all of the negative effects that would come from that, or postponing the sequester in a reasonable way with a balanced package of spending cuts and revenue increases."