Report

Trump’s Plan to Slash Foreign Aid Puts Humanitarian Programs in Jeopardy

Administration hopes to bypass Congress by running down the budget clock.

Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget,  speaks at the White House in Washington on March 22, 2018.
Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, speaks at the White House in Washington on March 22, 2018. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration intends to cut billions of dollars from congressionally approved foreign aid programs, U.S. officials and aid organizations tell Foreign Policy, signaling its intention to bypass Congress’s constitutional authority to approve the nation’s budget.

The cuts, which could range from $2 billion to $7 billion, come as President Donald Trump has been pursuing an increasingly hard-line reelection campaign that portrays immigration across the U.S. border with Mexico as one of the nation’s greatest national security threats.

Trump administration officials have long attempted to cut some U.S. foreign aid programs, arguing that the United States should focus its federal budget instead on investments at home, and that some foreign aid money is being spent wastefully or funneled to ineffective and inefficient programs in international organizations including the United Nations.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have denounced the effort, which follows a similar attempt last year by the administration to cancel congressionally appropriated foreign aid in a process known as rescission.

Some U.S. officials, lawmakers, and foreign diplomats fear the aid cuts will inject more chaos into American foreign policy, alarming key allies that have counted on U.S. leadership on the foreign aid front and imposing hardships on some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

“Everyone is in panic mode right now,” said one U.S. official involved in aid programs.

The White House has yet to detail which programs it plans to target in a rescission, but it recently notified the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development of its intent to freeze $2 billion to $4 billion in foreign aid, including U.N. peacekeeping programs and projects for UNICEF designed to protect children. The administration partially lifted the freeze, following criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

The money in question has been appropriated by Congress but has yet to be allocated to specific programs, meaning the funds are “unobligated.” If the White House submits a rescission package, Congress has 45 days to review, accept, or reject the proposal.

During those 45 days, the funds in question are frozen. By introducing the rescission this late in August—when most members of congress are on vacation—the administration appears to be trying to run out the fiscal budget clock, which expires Sept. 30. If the money isn’t obligated by then, it can’t be spent and will be returned to the U.S. Treasury.

It remains unclear which programs will remain on the chopping block, as internal White House discussions are ongoing.

“They’ve taken some stuff off the books … so that narrows down considerably what is left,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “But it’s still something of a guessing game at this point as to what will be hit and to what extent.”

Gayle Smith, who served as USAID chief under former President Barack Obama, criticized the move as harmful, short-sighted, and rushed. “In the very immediate sense, it risks shutting down really, really important programs that are of value to the United States,” she said.

“Given the short time frame that’s been put on this, it’s shutting them down without rhyme or reason,” said Smith, who now heads the ONE Campaign, a nonprofit focused on poverty and diseases in the developing world.

The White House Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the rescission directives, has permitted the State Department and USAID to dole out a tiny fraction of the money, up to 2 percent a day, a USAID spokesman said.

But aid advocates say that the 2 percent daily cap essentially amounts to a freeze on the funds, because foreign assistance programmers don’t normally distribute contributions in such small amounts.

Foreign aid typically accounts for about 1 percent of the overall U.S. federal budget, and the level of funds at risk of rescission represents about one-tenth of that 1 percent.

In recent weeks, humanitarian aid organizations have been consulting with each other and with congressional officials to determine which programs face cuts. According to documents circulated by aid organizations earlier this month and obtained by Foreign Policy, the cuts could affect foreign aid programs in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia; peacekeeping operations; and programs aimed at addressing the influence of Russia and China in Europe and other developing countries.

But one administration official involved in internal deliberations insisted that global health funds and life-saving humanitarian assistance are not on the chopping block. The administration official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Humanitarian workers told Foreign Policy they anticipate funds for international organizations to be hardest hit—including U.N. programming. Earlier this month, UNICEF circulated a paper detailing more than $130 million in funding that could be at risk, including money for programs to protect children from polio, iodine deficiency disorders, and violence and to reduce death rates among childbearing mothers and their infants.

The White House plans to spare favored foreign assistance programs, including a women’s entrepreneurship initiative backed by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump through the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, and a plan supported by Vice President Mike Pence to protect Christian minorities, an administration official confirmed to Foreign Policy. This news was first reported by the Washington Post.

The World Food Program, which is led by a former Republican governor of South Carolina, David Beasley, will also avoid cuts, in part because it already received the final installment of the nearly $1.9 billion the United States paid the group this year.

Smith, the former head of USAID, said the Trump administration’s push to cut funds will ultimately cost the United States more in the long term. “To cut the aid budget is ultimately quite expensive … because you get the results when you fail to engage,” she said. “You get conflict, you get instability, you get famines, you get unrest.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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