Opinion: The White House is ignoring Congress's call for US humanitarian leadership

The White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Powhusku / CC BY-SA

The United Nations General Assembly and its many side meetings concluded last month.   President Donald Trump addressed the plenary session, sparking controversy with his remarks on North Korea and Iran. At a side meeting he spoke of U.S. support for HIV/AIDS and malaria, a grace note in an otherwise out-of-tune performance. He was further off-key when he failed to attend an important meeting on the worst humanitarian emergencies.

Secretary-General António Guterres called upon heads of state to discuss humanitarian crises across the globe, including those in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and South Sudan, where people are experiencing famine or near-famine conditions. Trump sent U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green to the meeting to announce further funding — money that exists because of Congress, despite the president’s budgetary requests. Trump’s absence and a 2018 budget proposal with large cuts to humanitarian spending sends a strong signal that the U.S. is stepping away from its leadership role in global humanitarian needs.

The Trump administration has made clear through its budget proposals for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 that humanitarian assistance is of diminished importance. In the face of unprecedented needs, the president has called for a 40 percent cut in the FY18 budget for humanitarian assistance. Today, more than 70 million people urgently need food, water, health, and shelter assistance — the largest number since the end of WWII. Annual costs of all emergencies have escalated above $23 billion, yet another unprecedented number. It is not unsurprising that the Trump administration is retreating from the United States’s longtime leadership in humanitarian assistance given its “America First” outlook, but it is deadly for the millions who need our help.  

Congress has stepped into the breach. Supported and urged on by a broad array of constituents, lawmakers actually added $990 million in FY17 to meet urgent humanitarian needs in the countries facing famine. This seemingly rare instance of bipartisan support helps the U.S. continue to fund emergencies to meet the worst of current crises. Congress and the public disagree with the president and have taken action to show that the U.S. is and should remain a crucial leader in humanitarian assistance for those who face hunger, disease, and violence. Leadership, however, is more than just funding. It relies on strong institutions to deal with urgent issues, and policies and plans that signal the intention to lead the global community in humanitarian response.

This administration seems to believe it is time for others to step up and lead, and pay more to meet escalating humanitarian needs. It does so without a plan to persuade current or newer donors — primarily China and the Gulf States — that they should contribute more. This issue was not part of recent discussions with either the Chinese nor the Saudis. Experience shows that getting others to contribute is a thorny issue, but it cannot be solved by not talking about it. More importantly, the Trump administration — in its own stubborn way — persists in ignoring the congressional message on a vital aspect of America’s international leadership, instead sending messages of diminished engagement.

Without a plan to engage, the administration cannot hope for change, even if it cares that change actually happens. More importantly, by pushing for large budget cuts the Trump administration sends the clear message to our partners that the United States cannot be counted on to lead, not just with funding, but with fully engaged foreign aid institutions.

For the sake of more than 70 million people in need, let’s hope Congress continues to send a message of engagement and hope.

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About the author

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    Gregory Gottlieb

    Gregory Gottlieb is responsible for the overall direction of the Feinstein International Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Throughout his career, he has worked to improve food security, humanitarian, and transition programs and he brings this focus, dedication and determination to Tufts.