For US aid groups, shutdowns are just one piece of a bigger problem

A caution tape with the U.S. Capitol dome in the background. Photo by: Photo Phiend / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — United States foreign aid officials who stayed home Monday because of the federal government shutdown barely had time to begin their domestic to-do lists before the U.S. Congress reached an agreement to send them back to work.

While the short duration of this shutdown limited any direct impact on U.S. development programs, Congress has only bought three weeks of funding with this deal, and future, longer shutdowns could prove more disruptive.

In the meantime, the broader climate of uncertainty and political fighting that forced government agencies to close their doors for one day has also had broader consequences for U.S. aid efforts. Unpredictable budgets have hobbled long-term planning, and U.S. country offices have responded in different ways, creating inconsistency and incoherence that humanitarian and development organizations still have to cope with, their leaders say.

“Development … thrives best with certainty and predictability. The world is unpredictable enough without Congress and the administration making it more unpredictable,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.

For O’Keefe, the latest shutdown — and the ongoing threat of future ones — is one of three elements that have contributed to an atmosphere of “swirling chaos and uncertainty” for the U.S. government’s humanitarian and development partners. The other two elements are the “serial [continuing resolution] budgeting process, and the dichotomy between President Donald Trump’s budget request and the reality of Congress’s appropriation.

The sum of those those three things leaves the U.S. Agency for International Development’s country missions guessing about their medium- and long-term budgets, and pulls staff attention away from the “creative and thoughtful action” needed to implement the best possible programs, O’Keefe said.

In the absence of a clear budget picture — and in an effort to faithfully implement the administration’s foreign policy — some missions have managed to prepare for the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, which sought to cut foreign aid spending by roughly a third. They have held meetings with partner organizations informing them that some programs may not continue and that they should prepare shutdown plans, O’Keefe said, adding, “vital staff time is spent coming up with plans that aren’t real.”

“They’re just being loyal soldiers,” he said, but the message that money could dry up is “damaging to the reputation of the United States as a reliable and stable funder.”

Other missions, recognizing that Congress is unlikely to agree to such dramatic reductions, have continued to manage with current spending levels in mind. The disparity, “creates this confusion and incoherence between countries, which is problematic,” O’Keefe said.

Agency guidance

Even though this shutdown turned out to be short lived, multiple USAID staffers shared frustration with the agency’s communication — or lack thereof — in the days and hours leading up to it. By mid-afternoon on Friday, many employees still had not heard from their supervisors what to do in the event of a shutdown, one USAID employee told Devex on the condition of anonymity.

USAID Administrator Mark Green’s notice to staff on Jan. 19.

The shutdown guidance the agency published on Friday reports that 467 out of 1,810 Washington-based “direct-hire” staff occupied “excepted” positions. All others were designated for furlough, and were given a maximum of four hours to complete an “orderly shutdown” of their “non-excepted activities.”

Staff members who were retained during the shutdown occupied positions that were either funded outside of the annual appropriation process, were “necessary for protection of life and property,” were “implicitly authorized” because of their connection to other continuing operations, or related to the discharge of the “president’s constitutional duties.”

In addition to furloughed staff, the shutdown imposed a number of other restrictions on the agency’s spending and activities, including barring new travel arrangements, new employment offers, and any speeches without approval by USAID’s public affairs office.

It also raised, “particularly thorny issues in the area of contractual commitments,” according to the agency’s guidance. The Anti-Deficiency Act prevents government agencies from making funding commitments in excess of their appropriated funding. Those requirements can run into conflict with, “orderly shutdown activities and with continuation of excepted functions,” the agency’s guidance points out.

Previously awarded contracts that still had available funding were permitted to continue, unless the agency was unable to provide “adequate oversight of contract performance.” Grants and cooperative agreements faced similar arrangements. New awards and additional payments were only permitted if they supported “excepted activities” or were “genuinely needed to protect government property or human safety.”

Contractor representatives warned about the shutdown’s potential to hurt their operations.

“Contractors often end up suffering more than federal civilian employees do from the same shutdown effect. History says that, while civilian employees who are forced not to work will eventually be paid, contractors under the same instructions will not be,” said David Berteau, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council, in a statement.

About the author

  • 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.