On August 3, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent the US Agency for International Development (USAID) a letter that freezes spending of all unobligated funds until OMB can review the budget, ostensibly to offer a rescissions package, which is set to be released this week. The package is expected to include serious cuts, perhaps $4 billion worth, with a few significant exceptions. OMB has allowed USAID to continue spending from its budget at low levels to ensure the lights don’t accidentally go out on any projects during this process.
Using US taxpayer dollars wisely should be a priority for all within the government, from the secretary of defense to a staff assistant at the Department of the Interior. Stewarding the vast sums of money working Americans generate and give to the government is a sacred responsibility, so OMB’s instinct in this situation should be applauded. Institutions that must go before Congress every year to fight for their budgets have an incentive not to end the fiscal year with major reserves left in the bank if they don’t want their budgets reduced in years to come. Arguably, this could lead to a late-year spending spree, which OMB may be trying to head off.
But this instance is sadly not an act of good stewardship of US tax dollars. Instead, it has become the exact opposite, threatening US interests around the world while making almost no financial impact at home. The USAID budget makes up around 1 percent of the overall federal budget, about $40 billion this year. The forthcoming cuts are expected to be around $4 billion, which is about 10 percent of the annual USAID budget. So we are talking about 0.001 percent of the federal budget. For such relatively minor savings, you would not want to target any programs critical to US interest. Such programs are USAID’s work.
USAID represents one of the most powerful tools to leverage soft power the United States has in its tool chest. Our leaders use it to develop strategic relationships in some of the most difficult places on earth and bring stability and humanitarian relief in ways that soldiers and sanctions never will. Inviting a national debate within the Trump administration and Congress about cutting this funding telegraphs to foreign countries, partner nongovernmental organizations, and individuals receiving the aid that they cannot depend on the US to fulfill its commitments. Such actions breed distrust and may drive those we wish to support into the arms of a foreign power that seems more dependable. We are damaging our international credibility over federal pocket change.
It is also important to remember that prevention is cheaper than responding to a crisis. It is estimated that $1 spent on prevention in a country at high risk of conflict is worth $7 in crisis management after the fact. USAID is one of the primary US mechanisms to invest in projects aimed at preventing conflict and atrocities.
Understanding that this is not necessarily wise financial policy, we must also consider the moral aspect of these proposed cuts. The USAID budget supports some of the world’s most vulnerable, traumatized, and targeted people. People who have been displaced because of conflict and in some cases genocide. People struggling to survive in the face of religious persecution and government repression. Marginalized people whose only opportunities will come through USAID-supported education. Does the moral leader of the international community really want to save 10 percent of 1 percent of his budget on the back of the world’s most suffering populations? For those who believe the US should be an international leader guided by moral principles, the answer must be no.
It is also worth noting that the administration has been very clear it will not cut a few specific programs. One of those is the important work being done by USAID for victims of the Islamic State genocide. This underlines the powerful political consensus in Washington that the US must not let Christians and Yazidis in northern Iraq and Syria go extinct in the wake of the ISIS genocide. USAID has put incredible energy into this project and in many ways delivered on the vice president’s pledge that help was on the way to these communities. The situation is still far from resolved with many Yazidis still languishing in internally displaced person (IDP) camps and Christians afraid to return because of Iran-backed militias that have established themselves in their towns. Even so, this commitment not to pull back USAID funding for this region shows the deep commitment within the US government for this issue.