Despite progress, 2014 budget outlook still murky for US foreign aid

Sabita, a resident of Rajarchar Village, receives rations during a food distribution in Bangladesh. In 2014, appropriators are working on the $40 billion post-sequestration budget and aid advocates are making the case to increase the humanitarian assistance budget. Photo by: Jeff Holt / CC BY-NC

With a signed bipartisan budget deal in their hands and tens of billions of dollars to spend, U.S. appropriators are the center of attention at the start of this New Year. Aid advocates are urging them to look at a growing list of global conflicts and crises and put some of that money to work for U.S. foreign assistance goals.

However, sources in touch with lawmakers told Devex it is too early to tell how much, if any, of the additional spending pie freed up by the the deal signed on Dec. 26 by President Barack Obama could be carved out for U.S. foreign aid.

In the early days of the 2014 legislative session, appropriators are tasked with parsing out $40 billion unfrozen by the partial alleviation of the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, which have been in place since March.

Lawmakers will likely opt to stitch together a slew of individual spending bills in a comprehensive “omnibus” package that would fund all federal functions and avoid another government shutdown when spending authority expires on Jan. 15.

Such a scheme would set new figures for State and Foreign Operations funding, which includes money for the U.S. Agency for International Development and most other aid-related departments, easy targets for cuts during recent budget battles.

Ongoing emergencies

Aid advocates have been busy throughout the holiday recess reminding appropriators about the numerous ongoing and emergent global crises — in Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan — that stressed humanitarian assistance budgets in 2013, and which seem likely to intensify through 2014.

“We’re making the case that [budget] cuts cost lives,” Jeremy Kadden, senior legislative manager at InterAction, told Devex.

Although a daunting task, the chance to allocate money in individual spending bills instead of through another continuing resolution — which would simply maintain past budgets — could be cause for limited optimism.

Some aid experts argue the recent U.S. fiscal climate and the automatic spending cuts Congress imposed have created a situation where foreign aid budgets bear little resemblance to actual conditions and demands in the places where they are supposed to operate.

A newly negotiated state and foreign operations spending bill — even one packaged within a huge omnibus agreement — could allow budgets to better reflect “current realities,” instead of past ones, said Kadden.

Middle East foreign aid cuts?

The Daily Beast reported on Thursday that Obama plans to cut spending this year on pro-democracy programs in the Middle East. Critics of U.S. democracy and governance programs in the region argue they have failed to contribute to stability and expose U.S. interests to blame and political alienation.

It is unclear how cuts to these particular programs could affect the overall top line numbers for U.S. foreign assistance, or which programs could receive additional funding in their stead.

Congress is poised to battle again over raising the nation’s borrowing limit in late February and early March. While the effects on foreign aid are likely to be indirect, the consequences could alter global economic relations as well as U.S. taxpayers’ feelings about fiscal priorities.

Some fiscal conservatives could demand spending cuts in exchange for raising the government’s borrowing limit, but most observers think it’s unlikely foreign aid budgets will be held ransom.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.