Congressional appropriators push back on US foreign aid cuts in two hearings

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green during the hearing on the FY budget request for the agency. Photo from HouseApprops YouTube

WASHINGTON — In a pair of hearings this week, United States Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green was challenged about the administration’s proposed cuts to the agency’s budget in fiscal year 2019, with lawmakers saying the deep cuts would not stand.

“The 2019 budget proposal from the administration will not make it. We’re going to kill it and replace it with something that makes more sense,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. “To the administration: We want work with you where we can but I reject the whole attitude being displayed about development assistance.”

Exclusive: USAID chief unveils major organizational shakeup

USAID Administrator Mark Green has proposed a major restructuring of the U.S. Agency for International Development, including changes to humanitarian assistance, technological innovation, and how the agency manages its budget and policy.

Others dismissed the budget proposal, saying they were “dismayed” and that it was “deeply frustrating” that the administration would make such a proposal a second year in a row when it clearly went against the will of Congress. The Trump administration proposed cutting the foreign aid budget by about a third in both FY 2018 and FY 2019. Congress ignored those proposals and passed a FY 2018 budget, after months of political wrangling, that kept foreign aid spending nearly equal with the previous year.

Green, whose job is to defend the administration’s position, spent much of his time repeating himself as lawmakers tried to get him to say that the funds requested would be insufficient.

“We acknowledge this request will not provide enough resources to meet every humanitarian need or seize every development opportunity. Indeed no modern budget has,” Green said. “This  budget attempts to balance fiscal needs at home with our leadership role on the world stage.”

Green repeated some version of that statement multiple times across the hearings before both the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees responsible for the foreign aid budget.

Graham outlined the various cuts, asking Green if he had been consulted on the 17.3 percent proposed cut to USAID operations. When Green replied he hadn’t, Graham responded “so someone just made it up.”

“The people who did these cuts clearly don’t know what they’re talking about,” Graham said. “They’ve spent zero time looking at Africa, they’re just making up numbers to balance a budget.”

Graham, who chairs the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, said that Congress would give Green more money than the request, likely closer to FY 2018 numbers.

“If we gave you more money [do you] think you could use it wisely?” he asked Green at one point, after repeated attempts by other committee members to challenge Green on how the agency could work with a dramatically reduced budget.

“Every dollar you give me I’ll spend as effectively as can,” Green responded.

Members of the committees also took the opportunity to ask Green about some key issues and about the USAID redesign, or “transformation” as the agency is calling it.

Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, asked about the reorganization process, how USAID’s Office of Inspector General’s recommendations were being incorporated, how much time the effort would take, and how that would impact the agency’s work.

Green said that the OIG recommendations are being incorporated into the reforms and the agency has worked to build its recommendations in programming and operations, reducing the backlog by 75 percent in the past six months.

He added that the agency’s commitment to monitoring and evaluation “continues unabated” and noted that the redesign was being led by career staff, and carried out gradually and in consultation with Congress, thus ensuring the reforms are done the right way.

As part of this transformation, USAID is developing a new set of metrics to assess the capacity and commitment of partner countries in an effort to inform programming through assessments done in the field, Green said. Several congressmen asked about those metrics.

The goal of the “journey to self-reliance” metrics is to help the agency set long-term priorities and assess where countries are, rather than to determine whether or not they receive funding, he said. One of the key metrics in country capacity is around democracy and a healthy civil society, Green said, and the emphasis needs to be not just on good governance but rather on responsive governance, which is what should be measured and fostered.

Green talked about USAID’s “journey to self-reliance strategy” and how he envisions countries transitioning their relationship with the agency over time, rather than the agency just leaving. He gave the example of India, where USAID’s presence has changed dramatically, even in the last few years, and the agency’s primary role is helping catalyze private investment and testing models that they can scale. He also said that there has been a tendency in the past few decades toward “irrational exuberance” after one election, adding that it is almost always a mistake to walk away at that point.

Members of the committees asked Green about a couple key areas of concern, including Venezuela, the Rohingya crisis, and the role of the agency in countering Russia and China.

Green, who is planning a trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, said that the U.S. continues to provide humanitarian assistance, but that humanitarian access remains difficult and long-term development needs also need to be addressed.

As the situation in Venezuela worsens, USAID is working to continue to support refugees who are fleeing to Colombia and other countries of the region, announcing earlier this month an additional $16 million in humanitarian assistance to help that group. The Maduro regime in Venezuela has rejected foreign aid, so it is difficult for the agency to provide support to people living in the country.

On Russia, Green said USAID will continue to support civil society and economic development efforts in neighboring countries, including Ukraine, which he said was the best way to counter the Kremlin. In response to questions on China, Green warned that it is of vital strategic importance that the U.S. and its partners offer countries an option other than China’s money. He called what China does the “opposite of self-reliance,” saying that they instead are building countries indebtedness and not supporting development.  

Others asked about other countries of concern, including Nicaragua and USAID’s work supporting civil society there, how USAID is working with Cuban civil society and its role in the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

A trio of women, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York, and Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, all raised concerns about family planning funding, including cuts to the United Nations Population Fund, the need to properly evaluate the health impacts of the “global gag rule” being imposed across all global health funding and the importance of family planning policy based on science.  

Green said the administration was studying the impacts of the implementation of the gag rule, or Mexico City policy, and was working on a strategy to reprogram money that would have gone to UNFPA.

Working with small and indigenous partners is important to USAID, and it will continue to work to build capacity of civil society and NGO partners so that more of the agency’s funding goes to them, Green said, adding that the procurement reform being undertaken as part of the redesign will in part look to ensure that is a continued part of its approach.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.