The Cable

Haiti causing steep funding cuts, aid groups warn

The Cable reported last week that the need to push emergency relief to Haiti was taking funding away from other vital U.S. government programs around the world. Now, aid groups are reporting that they are scaling back plans amid fears that budget cuts will send them scrambling for resources, leaving needy victims in the lurch. ...

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The Cable reported last week that the need to push emergency relief to Haiti was taking funding away from other vital U.S. government programs around the world. Now, aid groups are reporting that they are scaling back plans amid fears that budget cuts will send them scrambling for resources, leaving needy victims in the lurch.

About $200 million of funds from the emergency accounts of OFDA, USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, have been diverted to Haiti so far, with more expected. These funds, which represent about a quarter of the office’s international assistance budget, could be replenished in the coming months, but meanwhile, aid groups in other crisis areas are forced to plan against the money they have, and as a result are looking at staff cuts and reductions in new programs.

“You have to make some hard choices about whether you are going to support the Haiti earthquake victims or are you going to reserve those funds and hold them to expand programs for other victims in, say, Somalia,” explained Susan Reichle, the USAID official who heads the Haiti coordination effort.

“OFDA’s current global priority is Haiti and this has impacted OFDA’s budget globally,” reads one email sent by OFDA rejecting a project proposal. “There have been modifications in overall planned programming and budgets in Latin America and the Caribbean,” the email, which was obtained by The Cable, continues. “This may change in coming weeks or months as the situation evolves.”

Todd Shelton, senior director for policy and communications at Interaction, the largest coalition of U.S.-based NGOs doing international humanitarian work, said his member organizations are feeling the pinch.

“They’re robbing Peter to pay Paul and you’re seeing that with OFDA programs … we’ve heard that from several of our members in places like South Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia,” Shelton said. One NGO’s proposal for a nutrition program in Ethiopia was turned down, according to Shelton, and the USAID mission in Somalia told another organization that a water, sanitation, and hygiene program under discussion would only be considered later this year if supplemental funding comes through.

“That would have served about 40,000 beneficiaries and that would have started almost immediately,” Shelton said. “In terms of potable water, you can’t go back in time and put that water into needy children’s mouths.”

“We’re supporting Haiti, but we’re concerned about the rest of the world,” said Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw, of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which relies on USAID grant money. “Yes, there are negative effects, because even if funds are restored completely, there are delays in funding emergency needs and some of these programs won’t get funding because other things will be seen as more pressing needs when the money comes in.”

For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, USAID told CRS groups that their $32 million 2010 budget would be cut by 40 percent overall. CRS says it was told to expect reductions of between 30 and 50 percent to its programs in Ethiopia, southern Sudan, and Somalia.

One program in Congo to help families with hygiene and sanitation aid “can’t expand to meet additional needs,” Kuennen-Asfaw said. Other programs that don’t yet exist are being rejected, with Haiti as the explanation.

Reichle told The Cable that there is no instruction for aid groups to make a 40 percent cut in their existing programs, as some groups have claimed, but admitted that international disaster assistance funds for Haiti were having an effect on plans for new programs and expansions of existing programs in the near term.

“What we’re waiting for is additional funds to come in to replenish the accounts…. A lot will depend on when we receive supplemental funds and how much funds there are,” she said.”You can’t fund additional things until you know what your budget is.”

Program decisions should be made by OFDA based on the merit of a proposal, not based on whether funds were going to Haiti, she said. But nonetheless, until Congress acts, the limited funds will have to be prioritized. “It’s a hard choice.”

Help on the way?

With funding tight, the State Department is working with the White House now to figure out what the intermediate needs for Haiti will be. Hill staffers expect a new supplemental request for Haiti funding soon, but no final decisions have been made, and they aren’t sure how much money will be needed.

A Senate aide close to the issue said that Congress was requesting a meeting with USAID to discuss how Haiti funding was affecting other countries’ programs. The aide said that even if aid groups are sounding the alarm bells prematurely, the effects of the funding shift are real.

“I don’t believe any of them have actually experienced a cut in funding because they haven’t submitted proposals yet, but there’s no question that OFDA is drawing down funds that would have been used for purposes other than Haiti,” the aide said.

The supplemental request from the administration is expected soon and will include funds to backfill accounts, but the impact of the funding shift will depend on how long Congress takes to act.

“Until they actually have the money in hand they worry they aren’t going to get it,” the aide explained. “I think they are going to get it; it’s just a matter of when.”

Rep.  Nita Lowey, D-NY, told The Cable last week that Congress would be actively considering the effect Haiti funding will have on other programs as lawmakers digest the new budget requests.

“There are so many places in the world that need our assistance and you’re always making judgments depending upon where you can do the least harm if you’re taking funding from other accounts,” Lowey said. “This is why I’m saying that the future and reconstruction money has to be evaluated in the context of the other tremendous needs around the world.”

AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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